Executed while Lawson was living in New York, Spring Night, Harlem River dates from the artist’s Washington Heights period as it depicts the Washington Bridge (1888) at 181st Street. Spring Night, Harlem River is unusual in the artist's oeuvre for its bold verticals and diagonals, its spatial depth and order. Among Lawson's works in the Collection it is the best known and most frequently exhibited.
The bridge is observed from below, against the night sky, heightening the drama and powerful impact of the huge span. Moonlight reflected on the water and on the far bank illuminates the scene. A tightly locked pattern of light and shadow runs from the foreground along the dark recesses of the bridge and continues on the distant shore; the fainter shadows echo this movement. The sharp diagonal line of the bridge creates a thrust into space that is stabilized by the four horizontal bands of land-water-land-air and the shimmering correspondence of sky and water. Slender trees in the foreground invite a poignant comparison of natural and man-made forms. Lawson carefully blended his brushstrokes and defined the forms clearly, using heavy daubs of paint only in the street lamps lining the bridge. The blue and green tonalities of Spring Night, Harlem River and its white, pink, and gold highlights create a rich tapestry of color that undoubtedly attracted Duncan Phillips. To express how it enchanted him, Phillips drew on his literary background: "His [Lawson’s] 'Moonlight Harlem River' is Shakespearean with its home lights and bridge lamps glimmering in a tremulous turquoise air as in some garden of romance."