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Ashcan School

Ashcan School Collage

Started: 1900

Ended: 1915

"Do whatever you do intensely. The artist is the man who leaves the crowd and goes pioneering. With him there is an idea which is his life."

Robert Henri Signature

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

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.
Ashcan School Image


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.

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