(Petersburg, Virginia, 1867 - 1940, New York, NY)
Jerome Myers was a contemporary of the early twentieth-century artists who formed the group known as The Eight. Like Robert Henri, John Sloan, George Luks and others, Myers depicted the day-to-day lives of New Yorkers and their urban environment. Myer’s subjects were specifically the inhabitants of the ghettos of the Lower East Side, primarily recent immigrants whose lives and activities reflected both their poverty and their adjustments to life in an alien culture.
Myers was one of five children born to Abram and Julia Hillman Myers in Petersburg, Virginia. His father was frequently absent from the home, and his mother was an invalid who was unable to support her family. Jerome and his siblings were placed in foster care for periods of their childhood, and these experiences created a strong empathy for the disenfranchised in adulthood. (1)
Soon after Myers arrived in New York around 1886, he enrolled in art classes at Cooper Union while working as a sign and interiors painter. He continued his formal studies at the Art Students League, studying under the academic painter George de Forest Brush periodically for over eight years. Although he appreciated the value of learning to paint according to the formulas set out by the academic curriculum, the artist found the training tedious and felt his art was to be accomplished by pursuing his own independent course of study. He developed the habit of traveling the city carrying a sketchpad on which he would record what he saw, later translating the drawings into finished paintings.
After taking a job with the New York Tribune art department in 1895, Myers could finally afford a trip to Paris, an experience considered a “must” for American artists beginning in the nineteenth century. Although he appreciated the works he saw in galleries and museums, he returned to New York certain that his art goals were tied to his love of the Lower East Side and its inhabitants. He located his first New York studio on West 14th Street, and eventually began to exhibit through the Macbeth Galleries. In addition, he became one of the organizers of independent exhibitions early in the twentieth century, including the Armory Show of 1913.
Myers’ art career was devoted to the paintings and drawings that he made of life on the Lower East Side, and he routinely exhibited and sold these works. He is known specifically for his images of street life—market activities, social gatherings in public venues—and for images of immigrant children at play. Perhaps because of the deprivations of his own childhood, Myers portrayal of immigrant children’s activities were idealized to a certain extent, leading to some critical complaint that he over-romanticized these subjects. Despite this criticism, he devoted himself to these subjects throughout his career, which ended with his death in 1940.
(1) Biographical information is contained in Grant Holcomb, “The Forgotten Legacy of Jerome Myers, (1867-1940): Painter of New York’s Lower East Side,” The American Art Journal 9, May 1977): pp. 78-91. Also see the artist’s autobiography, Artist in Manhattan (New York: The American Artists’ Group, Inc., 1940).