In the Philadelphia Antiques Show, I happened to spot a painting by A. F. King with an unusual subject: Pittsburgh Street Scene. The meticulous painter of still life and landscape depicted a social strife event in downtown Pittsburgh that would make me wonder what was the story behind it. The dealer ascribed it possibly related to coal strike of 1910-1911, but I doubted it since the brawl happened in an liquor store. On the other side of the street there was a hotel providing accommodation for man and beast, but it closed for no license. Could it be related to the Panic of 1907? It seems to me that the crowd swamped into the store because it had a sign “wanted five more bartenders”at the front.
This kind of historical paintings always have some anecdotes or analogies that reward the keen eyes. In the painting, a dog was dashing out at the lower left corner in a mad speed. But who is more crazy? The sardine crowd or the directionless dog who at least ran out of the uproar? A lady in yellow clothes was watching at the far end. She looked back even though she kept her pace walking out of the chaos. Two policemen were either disenchanted or awkward in directing the crowd.
As much as I admire King’s effort to paint out of his comfort zone, his limited ability in arranging a large number of subjects coherently is obvious. Somehow I even felt that the perspective was a little bit off as if the roads were titled toward the viewer to give a more dramatic top view. If it is true that the less well the figures,are painted, the better the landscape is (by Dwight William Tryon), then the featureless figures look as if painted in haste and less inspiring. King didn’t carry the humor of David Blyth or poeticism of William Coventry Wall in the urban scenes, yet the amateurish looking has its own charm that reflects the fortitude and confidence of self-taught, self-improving American craftsmanship. Such subject would not be suitable for commission or societal demand, King must have been influenced by an actual event and painted with a rush that almost carried him away from his trademarked exactness.