Summary of Ashcan School
Known for its gritty urban subject matter, dark palette, and gestural brushwork, the Ashcan School was a loosely knit group of artists based in New York City who were inspired by the painter Robert Henri. The group believed in the worthiness of immigrant and working-class life as artistic subject matter and in an art that depicted the real rather than an elitist ideal. While their subject matter was revolutionary, their manner of painting finds precedents in the Realism of 17th-century Spanish and Dutch art, and also with 19th-century French painting. In the United States, prior to the arrival of the Ashcan School, American Impressionism, with its pleasing and luscious displays of the feminine and peaceful idylls, held sway. After the Ashcan School, more artists focused on modernity and their own expressive reactions to what they encountered. Their main achievement was to reverse the formula of previous New York painters by focusing on the dynamic energy of the people. Yet, with the arrival of European modernism to New York via the Armory Show (1913), the Ashcan School was retrograde in comparison.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- Henri and the other painters pursued authenticity in art, a quality associated with direct experience, immediacy of execution, and a new emphasis on the truth and validity of one's first impression. This resulted in canvases which portray a sense of haste and liveliness, of the working people of New York, and of a release from the artist's need to create beauty from the extraordinary.
- Modernism brought with it a new sense of the visual. Ashcan School artists were interested in new modes of seeing and being seen in modern New York City: people walking in parks, prostitutes on the street, artificial lights in boxing arenas and vaudeville reviews, a film projecting in a movie theater that illuminates the working-class audience, and the great proliferation of images due to advances in publishing and mass media.
- The Ashcan School artists rejected skillful, finished drawing and the ability to render the outward appearance of people and things and instead celebrated personal vision.
- The works' sketchy quality, vigorous paint application, and sense of reportage came from the artists' training as newspaper illustrators who captured the spectacle of the expanding modern metropolis. The artists sought new forms of Realism to describe the rapid and great changes in urban life, commercial culture, and codes of social contact.
Overview of Ashcan School
At the turn of the last century, a group of young artists appeared who were set on challenging the refinement, polish, and idealistic American Impressionists who then dominated the art scene. Philadelphia's Robert Henri was the leader of the group which was made up of John Sloan, Everett Shinn, George Luks, and William Glackens. Each one varied in style and subject matter; yet, all were urban realists who adhered to Henri's motto "art for life's sake," rather than "art for art's sake." Despite their common economic and ethnic backgrounds, each approached the urban scene in a unique manner. Henri had studied at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Art, as well as at Paris's Academie Julian. He began to mentor the four artists, all of whom were newspaper illustrators, circa 1892; we consider this grouping to be the first generation of Ashcan School painters. The second generation commenced with Henri's move to Manhattan and the inclusion of his New York student George Bellows.
Important Art and Artists of Ashcan School
Willie Gee, an African-American boy of a tender age, is seated with an apple in hand and wearing rumpled clothing. The artist noted in his daybooks that Gee was the son of a woman who had been a slave in Virginia and had recently moved north. The nondescript, brushy background of browns and grays offers little commentary or details as to who Gee actually is and in its simplicity renders the young boy as quite humble. Henri's fluid brushwork, most noticeable on Gee's coat sleeve and white collar, is there to suggest the activity and movement one usually associates with young children. Traditionally the patrons of child portraiture were moneyed individuals who sought to celebrate their notable lineage or remember deceased children. There was no wealthy patron in this case, and Willie Gee was just a neighborhood child of the working class who appealed to the artist. Henri and his followers rarely ventured into New York's African-American neighborhoods, concentrating instead on the immigrant inhabitants of Lower Manhattan. Here, Henri breaks from the dominant stereotypes of African Americans then found in visual culture.
At Mouquin's remains Glackens' most celebrated and grand painting. In the foreground, the fashionable outerwear slung over the back of a chair leads our eye into the center of the painting where Glackens posed friends as elegant New Yorkers out on the town. The work's sophistication and psychological content in the woman's countenance prompted critics to compare Glackens to Édouard Manet. The clever use of mirrors to replicate and expand the special plane call to mind Manet's masterwork The Bar at the Folies Bergere (1881-82). While a young man in Paris, Glackens followed Henri's direction to seek out works by Manet. Here, Glackens turns his attention to new social spaces, such as this fancy restaurant, and new social relationships which reveal interior states (this was the era of Freud's initial publications on human psychology). We glance upon the woman's face, which is turned away from her jubilant partner and seems melancholy, if not weary, as she gazes off the canvas. As hers is the most forward visage in the composition, we connect most with this woman and her seeming isolation.
In 1904, after a twenty-year extended sojourn away from his native country, famed novelist and essayist Henry James returned to his dramatically changed birthplace; where he went and what he observed culminated in his collection of essays The American Scene (1907). Appalled by the arriving European masses, James was frightened that the "hodgepodge" of racial characteristics they brought to the United States would dilute the true meaning of being an American. James wholehearted supported the primacy of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and viewed the Jews, the Italians, and the Irish as racial others and outsiders.
In contrast to James, Luks delighted in this culturally diverse urban sprawl jam packed with humanity, found on New York's Lower East Side. By 1905, the downtown streets were crowded with substandard tenements and were home to the Eastern-European Jews who had arrived on these shores by the hundreds of thousands. Luks, a rough and tough character himself, wholly embraced the busy chaos of this spectacle. Luks's method was to make quick sketches onsite, which he would use as the basis of his painting. The artist applied paint with a fluid, rapid brush in order to capture the energy of the scene. Here, Luks brings us into the swell of the crowds, rather than maintain a distance, which allows viewers to viscerally experience the mass of humanity that populated the poor neighborhoods of New York. Further, while Luks isolates ethnic and racial types within this canvas (note the bearded Jewish men at left with side locks), he does not give into cheap ethnic stereotypes which were so common at the time. The modernity and newness of the image comes through in its innovative subject matter (most artists turned away from the immigrant classes as subjects) and the air of excitement Luks conveys.
Useful Resources on Ashcan School
- Painters of the Ashcan School: The Immortal EightOur PickBy Bennard B. Perlman
- Picturing the City: Urban Vision and the Ashcan SchoolBy Rebecca Zurier
- Life's Pleasures: The Ashcan Artists' Brush with Leisure, 1895-1925By James Tottis, Valerie Ann Leeds, Vincent Digirolamo, Marianne Doezema, and Suzanne Smeaton
- The Eight and American ModernismsOur PickBy Elizabeth Kennedy
- Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and Their New York, 1897-1917By Virginia M. Mecklenburg, Robert W. Snyder, and Rebecca Zurier
- An American Experiment: George Bellows and the Ashcan PaintersBy David Peters Corbett
- Urban StudiesBy Hilarie M. Sheets / ARTnews Magazine / June 12, 2012
- Ashcan Views of New Yorkers, Warts, High Spirits and AllOur PickBy Ken Johnson / The New York Times / December 28, 2007
- Ashcan KidsBy Grace Glueck / The New York Times / December 25, 1998
- Art of the Ashcan and Other SchoolsBy Suzanne Slesin / The New York Times / July 26, 1990