Nevinson first visited New York in 1919 at the invitation of Frederick Keppel & Co, a gallery and print publisher, where his prints of urban scenes and the First World War (1914-18) were exhibited to considerable acclaim. He was immediately impressed by the city's architecture, declaring to one New York journalist that the city was 'built for me'. During the course of his month long stay he made numerous sketches of the city, some of which were later made up into paintings and prints.
New York - an Abstraction was painted in London after Nevinson's return from New York in 1919 and before his next visit in October 1920 for a second exhibition at Frederick Keppel & Co. The poor reception of this exhibition may have accelerated Nevinson's disaffection with the city. His growing embitterment is perhaps reflected by the change of title. Originally exhibited in 1920 at the Bourgeois Galleries, New York, as New York - an Abstraction, it was retitled The Soul of the Soulless City in the Faculty of Arts Exhibition, Grosvenor House, London, in 1925 probably at Nevinson's instigation. The new title may have been a reference to Karl Marx's comment that religion was the 'heart of a heartless world'.
The painting depicts an imaginary section of the elevated railway running through Manhattan. The image described by one American critic as 'hard, metallic, unhuman' (quoted in David Cohen 'The Rising City Urban Themes in the Art and Writings of C.R.W.Nevinson', C.R.W.Nevinson The Twentieth Century, p.49), betrays an allegiance to Cubism and Futurism. The narrow chromatic range of mainly brown and grey and the complex facetting of the skyscrapers are closely related to Cubism. While the central motif of a railway line receding dramatically into a cluster of tower blocks epitomises a futurist interest in speed, technology and above all modernity.
Though Nevinson repeatedly claimed to have been the first artist to depict the modern beauty of New York's architecture, in fact several artists including the painters Joseph Stella, Edward Hopper and the photographers Alvin Langdon Coburn and Paul Strand had taken it as their subject matter before 1919. The parallels between Coburn's mirror-photographs of New York and Vorticism were so apparent that in 1917 Ezra Pound, the poet, critic and founder member of the Vorticist group, dubbed them 'vortographs'. Among Nevinson's British contemporaries, Alfred Wolmark also painted New York scenes.
The modern city had been a staple subject matter for British avant-garde artists before the First World War, but in the aftermath of that conflict the taste for modernity waned. This shift in attitudes was manifested in the visual arts by a 'return to order', that is to say a revival of the classical style and a renewed interest in the countryside and nature as subject matter. Nevinson's work during the 1920s reflected this change. Where the pre-war paintings had been characterised by the angular and dramatic style associated with the machine aesthetic of Futurism, increasingly his postwar works were rendered in a naturalist style. In tandem with this stylistic development, a growing number of Nevinson's paintings were landscapes. When appropriate, however, futurist motifs and subjects were revived, as in The Twentieth Century, 1932-35, his large scale critique of Nazism, Fascism and war.
C.R.W.Nevinson The Twentieth Century, exhibition catalogue, The Imperial War Museum, London 1999, reproduced as 'Soul of the Soulless City' p.143, pl.85 (colour)
C.R.W. Nevinson: Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings, Drawings and Prints 1889-1946, exhibition catalogue, Kettle's Yard, Cambridge 1988
Jeremy Lewison 'English Painting and the Metropolis in the Twenties', Jean Clair (ed.), The 1920s: Age of the Metropolis, exhibition catalogue, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal 1991, pp.417-31