Alson Skinner Clark’s painting is a study for his 1906 work The Coffee House (Art Institute of Chicago). A wintertime depiction of Chicago’s State Street Bridge looking south, the painting is titled after McLaughlin’s coffee store, the building on the far right. Clark reportedly studied the scene, and presumably made this preliminary work, from a bridge-tender’s lookout, while no doubt painting the final version in his studio. The study established the finished painting’s vertical format and emphasis on hazy atmosphere, billowing smoke, and diffused light. Yet it differs in showing less of the bridge and a more wintery setting, with the bridge’s pedestrian path covered in snow and the sky more densely clouded and decidedly chill. In The Coffee House, the figures, mostly women perhaps headed toward the famed State Street shopping district, are delineated in the middle distance, but in the study they are more shadowy forms glimpsed mostly at the far end of the bridge. To counterpoint the study’s comparatively monochrome tones, Clark painted a spot of green on a light signal at center-left; in the more colorful final work, he moved that note of bright color to the hat on one of the figures on the bridge, close to the center of the composition.
The best-known painting of Clark’s early career, The Coffee House was exhibited in the Art Institute of Chicago’s 1906 annual American art exhibition, where it won the $100 Martin B. Cahn Prize for the best work by a Chicagoan. By that date Clark’s claim to resident status was admittedly tenuous, but earlier in the year the museum had given him a well-received solo show, which followed his successful 1902 show at Chicago’s Anderson Galleries. Both exhibitions featured paintings that demonstrated Clark’s interest in urban settings and everyday life. These were scenes of Paris and Watertown, New York, however, rather than Chicago. Apparently the artist did not turn his attention to his native city until 1905, when he painted an elevated view of the interior of the Carson Pirie Scott and Company department store bustling with large-hatted ladies like those on the bridge in The Coffee House. In 1906, in addition to the latter painting, he made at least two wintertime views of the Chicago River that focus on its industrial character while softening its grittiness through pleasingly decorative effects. The contrast between this study for The Coffee House and the final painting demonstrates the careful planning and selection that went into Clark’s experiments in urban realism.
Wendy Greenhouse, PhD