AS THE DAYS OF NOVEMBER roll by, the rainfall that often accompanies the fall months is at the center of Kadir Nelson’s latest cover for The New Yorker. The artist’s double portrait depicts a couple clad in rain gear standing in the middle of a street in Dumbo, the Brooklyn waterfront neighborhood whose name is an acronym derived from its location: “down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass.”
She is carrying a bouquet of fresh flowers, while he is holding the umbrella they are huddled under. Nelson’s rendering of the red umbrella so large, it shields his subjects from the rain and also almost entirely covers over the magazine’s logo. There is no actual rain visible in the image. Precipitation is indicated by the wet street; the hazy, overcast pall hanging over the Manhattan Bridge in the right background; and the actions of a man seen in the distance, walking down the sidewalk away from the viewer, ducking slightly, and covering his head with a folded newspaper.
The illustration is featured on the cover of the Nov. 13 issue of the magazine. Nelson, who lives and works in Los Angeles, earned a BFA from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He spoke with Françoise Mouly, art editor of The New Yorker, about the cover. He said, the image was a decade in the making.
“Given all of the rain we had this winter in Southern California, it reminded me of this sketch I made—the source of inspiration for this cover—almost a decade ago,” Nelson said. “For all these years, I had looked forward to painting it. This year, thanks to each storm that passed over us, I finally found the time to do so.”
A black-and-white drawing, the inspiration sketch includes a streetscape with windowed buildings in the left background and the couple’s shadow reflected on the ground before them. The finished cover is pretty faithful to the sketch. In the full-color illustration, the stone-paved street is glistening from the rain, making the darkness of their shadows more prominent.
“Given all of the rain we had this winter in Southern California, it reminded me of this sketch I made—the source of inspiration for this cover—almost a decade ago.” — Kadir Nelson
The couple could be standing on any New York City street. The Belgian-block paved street and the Manhattan Bridge looming in the distance, give the scene context, making clear that the illustration depicts Dumbo, probably Plymouth Street. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, New York used rectangular, tooled granite stones to pave many of its streets. The material looks similar to brick, but is called Belgian block. The pavers are particularly intrinsic to the historic character of Dumbo, a once-thriving industrial district that is now a loft-laden enclave and one of the most expensive neighborhoods in New York City.
Over the years, New York’s built environment has left an enduring impression on the artist. “On my first trip to New York as a young adult, I visited the Brooklyn Heights Promenade and was blown away by the views of the river, the Manhattan skyline, and the bridges,” Nelson said. “I’m always humbled by the scale of the bridges and the buildings. Down by the river’s edge in Brooklyn is probably my favorite place in the city.”
On many other occasions, Nelson has illustrated covers for The New Yorker that capture the essence and culture of New York City. The selections have included a father and daughter sitting on a brownstone stoop in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Clinton Hill (Oct. 2, 2017), a young boy standing at bat during a game of stickball in an alley (April 23, 2018), a nattily dress couple “Savoring Summer” in Central Park (Sept. 10, 2018), a couple gazing at graffiti-style street art (Dec. 2, 2019), and after the initial isolation period of the pandemic, a couple embracing with the Brooklyn Bridge in the background (May 17, 2021).
Featured on the Feb. 22, 2016, cover of The New Yorker, one of Nelson’s most poignant New York images celebrated Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Published in the wake of the storied library’s 90th anniversary, the image is a montage of historic figures such as Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, and Malcolm X and details from paintings, including “Into Bondage” (1936) by Aaron Douglas and William H. Johnson’s “Cafe” (circa 1939-40). CT
READ MORE about Kadir Nelson’s portrait of Henriette Lacks, which is in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery
FIND MORE about the history of New York City streets and Belgian-block pavers and some of the challenges the historic material poses in contemporary life, including accessibility
In 2022, the New York City Department of Design and Construction embarked on a $93 million infrastructure improvement project focused on rehabilitating Dumbo’s streets and sidewalks, while preserving its Belgian-block pavers. | Video by NYC DDC
Kadir Nelson has illustrated a number of children’s books, including “The Undefeated,” “I Have a Dream,” “Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom,” “Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad,” and “Please, Baby, Please,” written by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee. Nelson has also authored children’s books, including “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and “We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball.” In 2020, he provided the introduction for “Black Heroes of the Wild West.”
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