Professor Katharine Ward
10 November 2010
Isolation Through Abstraction: An Analysis of John Matulka’s Aqueduct in the Bronx
John Matulka’s painting, Aqueduct in the Bronx, depicts the advancement of
infrastructure and urbanization and the isolation this creates from the natural environment.
Matulka achieved this juxtaposition of urban and rural settings through the use of many artistic
devises. The brush strokes, color palette, and compositional structure all reinforce the notion of
this separation, yet still allow the viewer to see both realms individually. Many of the
conventions used throughout this painting can be attributed to Matulka’s travels to Paris, France
when he was a young man, and many aspects of this style of painting are present throughout
Matulka’s body of work (Portland Art Museum).
Aqueduct in the Bronx is a cityscape painting of a New York neighborhood. Shown on the
left half of the canvas is a cluster of houses and apartment buildings. These buildings stretch
upward from the bottom corner, covering? three quarters of the canvas, where they are abruptly
interrupted by a large aqueduct. A large sweeping hill that extends from the bottom of the
painting to the top occupies the right side of the painting, where it then supports a cluster of
buildings that continue out of view. The focal point of the painting is the large, arch supported
aqueduct that dominates the background. This structure serves as the horizontal separation
between the painting’s foreground of the homes and apartments, and the mountains, trees, and
sky beyond. A winding road beginning at the bottom of the canvas vertically separates the
painting, passing through an aqueduct arch, and eventually winding off into the distant
landscape. A single telephone pole leaning into the roadway leads the viewer to follow its path
toward the archway of the aqueduct.
The view in this composition is from above ground level, not quite at the same elevation as
the aqueduct, but elevated enough to show a large swath of the city and the landscape beyond it.
This painting is contained in a modest, approximately 36 x 36 inch natural wood frame with a
marbleized band encompassing the perimeters. Compositionally there are no hard outlines, and
very little blending of the different shades of color used. This combination creates flattened
planes of different shapes that both create an overall image when observed from a distance, yet
have their own identity as unique shapes when inspected closer. The colors used throughout the
painting are earth-toned pigments of brown and green. Brown is clearly the dominant color, with
swatches of green and blue dispersed throughout. Only in the distance, through the aqueduct
arches, can you see the lightest greens and blues of the rolling hills and sky. The surface texture
of the painting is very subtle. Brush strokes and slight paint buildup are evident, but there is no
indication that Matulka intended to build thick textures as a feature of the painting. These
elements of the painting combine to create a portrait of a modern city on the cusp of a new era in
Matulka painted Aqueduct in the Bronx in 1921, three years after the end of World War I.
This was a time of great scientific and industrial innovations, large-scale construction projects,
and the arts taking center stage in the culture of the day. “Historians have called the economic
and cultural exuberance of the postwar years the Roaring Twenties; it was a time of jazz,
speakeasies, radio, and film” (983). This was also a time of great population growth, immigration
from abroad, and increased manufacturing volume in the urban cities. These circumstances make
Matulka’s subject matter of apartment housing, as well as a structure used to transport vast
amounts of water—the aqueduct—that much more poignant, since both would likely have been
very important at this time. Similar to the way a city planner is required to layout a neighborhood
or town, Matulka is no less discerning in locating the elements of his composition on the canvas.
The location of the paintings namesake, the aqueduct, is slightly beyond the primary
cluster of buildings in the foreground. Painted in the darkest pigments found on the canvas, this
structure dominates the view. The four towering arches in the aqueduct serve as windows to the
landscape beyond the city, with glimpses of trees and mountains shown beyond. This shape is
echoed throughout the painting, including many of the buildings windows and doorways.
Repetition of arches can be interpreted in a way such as an arch is used to see out of a building’s
window and into the city; the aqueduct’s arches are windows out of the city and into the
surrounding country. The arch shape is again used in the center of the road, dividing the painting
vertically. It is positioned in such a way to direct your eyes down the road, where you will
eventually reach the aqueduct and the limits of town.
The primary element of Aqueduct in the Bronx that evokes a connection with nature is the
use of color throughout the painting. The colors can be found in a lush forest on a fall afternoon,
or a rolling landscape of farms and fields. This full canvas saturation of color likens itself to
Impressionist paintings, such as Claude Monet’s Wheatstack, Sun in the Mist (880). Painted in
1891, Monet uses color tones and highlights drawn directly from the palette of the subject
throughout the entire composition. Tans, browns, and gold for example, are reminiscent of the
wheat fields in the painting. Without painting a single stalk of wheat, Monet portrays fields
to/in? the horizon using color alone. While Matulka’s painting exhibits this similarity to Monet’s
Impressionist style and use of the color palette, there are other styles that more closely fit the
structure of the paint on the canvas.
By leaving the paint in clusters and shapes, rather than blending uniformly, Aqueduct in the
Bronx draws heavily from a Fauvist influence. Art critic Louis Vauxcelles coined this term
“fauves, or wild beasts,” and referred to paintings of this type as an “orgy of pure colors” (947).
Fauvism was also “the first major style to emerge in the twentieth century” (946). Andre
Derian’s Mountains at Colllioure, painted in 1905 (948), exhibits striking similarities to
Matulka’s painting. Painting a patch of color next to another, thereby creating individual shapes
from the various bold pigments, in addition to not smoothly blended together these patches, are
staples of the Fauvist style.
After moving to Paris in 1919 to study at the National Academy of Design, Matulka was
exposed to Cubism (Portland Art Museum). “Cubism was not just an innovative style that
sparked new ways of thinking about the look of art. It was also important because it introduced
new ways of thinking about the purpose of art” (950). Leaving out a majority of the detailed
representations of depth and perspective that can be found in other painting styles, Cubist
paintings create a flat picture plane, comprising a composition of abstracted shapes, such as
Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (950). In Picasso’s painting, many of the figures are
almost lost among a full canvas of shapes and colors. It is only when your eye gravitates to a
particular hue that it will follow it to reveal the extents of a figure.
These same Cubist conventions are evident in Aqueduct in the Bronx. The flowing path of
colors that comprise the painting will often stop abruptly when colliding with another, and then
continue to complete a different form. An example of this can be seen among the cluster of
buildings on the bottom left quadrant of the painting. As each roof terminates into the next, an
abstract pattern is revealed beyond simple building roofs. This type of pattern extends into the
layout of the road, and particularly the sky. While it is only composed of a very limited color
palette, the sky appears as a complete abstraction. Marbleized textures and separated groupings
of various shades of white and blue create the clouds and clearings. While these Cubist aspects
of the painting are evident, Matulka keeps a sufficient level of representation throughout, in
order to leave no doubt as to the subject matter he is portraying. This painting, “illustrates
Matulka’s merging of direct observation and Cubist special organization” (Portland Art
From the smallest brush stroke used to paint a window, to the exact position and
perspective of the buildings, John Matulka’s Aqueduct in the Bronx has a sense of purpose and
precision in all aspects of composition. Perhaps the meaning of this painting is to show the urban
city and its isolation from nature, or possibly an idealized cityscape completely fabricated in
Matulka’s mind. What is the meaning behind the leaning telephone pole? Is it placed there to
reinforce the notion of isolation and failing communication with nature, or is it simply there to
direct your gaze towards the arches? It is the long history of art and architecture from the great
aqueducts of ancient Rome, landscape paintings such as Thomas Cole’s The Oxbow, 1836 (833)
with its numerous hidden meanings and sublime elements, Fauvism with its bold colors, and
Cubism’s abstractions, that shape artwork such as this. It is impossible to discuss artwork such as
this without finding connections to the past, and presumably this painting could be used as one of
these stepping-stones to connect with artworks of the future.
Score: 80/80 points. You did an excellent job describing this painting, and you juggled several
possible influences, supporting each of your claims with visual evidence. You did a great job
characterizing the post-WWI time period. Your paper is well-structured, you write with a clear,
suggestive tone, and you worked hard to contextualize the quotations that you incorporated.
Davies, Penelope J.E., et al. Janson’s History of Art. Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2007. Print
John Matulka, Aqueduct in the Bronx, 1921. Oil on canvas, approx. 36 x 36 ins. Portland Art
Museum Plaque for Aqueduct in the Bronx. Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR, 2010.