Monday in Central Park with painter Janet Ruttenberg
Tossing plans, taking cues from nature, leads to an extraordinary encounter in New York City.
I didn’t plan to ‘waste’ a whole day in the park. In an expensive city like New York, I make the most of every minute, shoehorning museums, tours, specific paintings, into every daylight hour. Leaving Scotty’s Diner at 39th and Lex one Monday in October, though, I turned my face to the sun, closed my eyes for a moment, and threw away the day’s itinerary.
The sun on my face had reminded me of a New York Times article I’d read about a woman who has spent the past fifteen years painting Central Park. The online images were brilliant, depicting an elfin, white-haired artist carrying a huge paintbrush over her shoulder like a hoe and working on a 15-foot painting in sun-dappled Central Park. The artist was Janet K. Ruttenberg. The NYTimes article was about her show Picturing Central Park, on now at the Museum of the City of New York.
Mrs. Ruttenberg’s paintings would be the most marvelous thing I’d see this trip. Possibly this year.
Walking into the exhibition, I had to consciously close my mouth. Janet Ruttenberg’s bold, vast canvases are jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Here was a grand master of landscape painting. Incredibly, it was her first show.
The New York Times article on Janet Ruttenberg describes how the 82-year-old artist hikes from her apartment on the East River to her studio on the west side, then back to Central Park almost every day, pushing a shopping cart of art supplies. She didn’t have to work this hard. Janet Ruttenberg began painting as a child in Iowa, married a wealthy industrialist/philanthropist and raised a family in an Upper East Side apartment decked with original works by Picasso, Matisse, Ingres and Goya. A wealthy widow, Ruttenberg could spend her days shopping or lunching with ladies. Instead, she’s spent decades intent on ‘cracking the code’ of painting, catching the light and all of life’s drama enacted daily on one of the world’s great natural stages.
Monet, Manet, Seurat, even Raphael–references flitted through my mind as I pored over Mrs. Ruttenberg’s canvases. Her paintings of Central Park’s Sheep Meadow were particularly vivid. I decided I had to see it for myself.
It took a couple of hours walking, down Fifth Avenue, into Central Park, past the boat pond where toy yachts sailed, past the Lake where couples rowed rented rowboats, past a bride and groom posing under a flaming maple, a few false turns corrected. I followed my map and clues from Janet Ruttenberg’s paintings. When I spotted morning glories on my left, I knew I was close.
The Sheep Meadow! In vivid mid-afternoon sun, dotted with lollers, backed by the Central Park South skyline. I stepped off the path to take a photo. To my right, under a sweeping elm, I registered a flock of young people clustered around a bright green blanket. Suddenly the flock rose and left. Why would they leave behind their blanket? With a start, I realized I was looking at a Janet Ruttenberg painting–and the artist herself.
Oh my goodness, I exclaimed stupidly. I just came from your show! This didn’t impress Mrs. Ruttenberg, who has to deal with lookie-loos all the time. Loved the paintings, I blathered on, they inspired me to come see the Sheep Meadow for myself! Mrs. Ruttenberg looked up. “It is magnificent, isn’t it?” Yes, yes it is! May I take your picture? (I always ask). She agreed but already had her head down, back at work, muttering something about catching the light. I watched a few moments more, then quietly left her to work. In a dazzle of sun and serendipity, I entered the Sheep Meadow, into the frame of a Janet Ruttenberg painting.
Janet Ruttenberg’s exhibition Picturing Central Park is on at The Museum of the City of New York until January 5, 2014.
New York Times article on landscape painter Janet Ruttenberg