Ashcan School
Characteristics of New York Urban Realism Style of Painting.

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Snow in New York (1902)
National Gallery, Washington DC.
By Robert Henri.

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painting in America,
see: American Art.
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see: American Sculptors.

Ashcan School of Painting (c.1900-1915)


The Eight
A Form of American Realism
Artists of the Ashcan School
Ashcan School Paintings


The term 'Ashcan School' - first used in print in the book Art in America in Modern Times (1934) edited by Holger Cahill and Alfred H Barr - refers to a loose-knit group of American painters active in New York (c.1900-15), whose works depicted scenes of everyday urban life in the city's poorer areas. Inspired by the artist Robert Henri (1865-1929) - an admirer of earlier American artists Thomas Eakins and Thomas Anshutz - who believed strongly that art could not be separated from life, the four central figures of the Ashcan movement were William Glackens (1870-1938), George Luks (1867-1933), Everett Shinn (1876-1953) and John French Sloan (1871-1951).

McSorley's Bar (1912)
By John French Sloan
Detroit Institute of Arts

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see: 20th Century Painters.

Waldorf Astoria Hotel
Thirty-Fourth Street and Fifth Avenue
By Joseph Pennell.
Crayon over pencil sketch.

The Eight

These five, together with Arthur B. Davies (1862-1928), Ernest Lawson (1873-1939) and Maurice Prendergast (1859-1924), were all members of 'The Eight', a short-lived group started by Henri in 1908. They were primarily a group of artists, who happened to be united in their opposition to the conservative National Academy of Design, and who shared a determination to inject some everyday journalistic-type realism into their art. They exhibited together only once (in 1908), at New York's Macbeth Gallery. It was the first self-selected exhibition by a group of artists, without a jury or prizes, and created a sensation. It subsequently toured America under the auspices of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The Eight were also involved in organizing the Armory Show in 1913, which exposed the American public to modern art. In addition, in 1917, they organized the Society of Independent Artists along with George Bellows and others. It is important to note that of the Eight, only five (Henri, Sloan, Glackens, Shinn, and Luks) painted the gritty urban Ashcan subjects, while three (Henri, Glackens and Prendergast) also contributed several masterpieces to the American Impressionism movement.

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A Form of American Realism

In America at the start of the 20th century, a new generation of artists was emerging. While acknowledging the contribution of older American artists like Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Whistler (1834-1903) and Winslow Homer (1836-1910), some members of this new generation were interested in creating a new type of art that reflected life in the growing cities across America. Thus - in sharp contrast to the conventional and rather genteel American Impressionism that represented the most popular American art of the period - these American Realists set about capturing the spontaneous moments of urban life. The Ashcan School was a core-group within this larger movement of American Realism, and shocked viewers with its "art for life's sake" rather than the more conventional "art for art's sake." For US collections which include works by Ashcan School members, see: Art Museums in America.

Characteristics of Ashcan Painting

Rather than trying to create beauty, Ashcan artists found it in the truth and real-life quality of their paintings. These canvases capture the authentic feel of 1900s New York City, depicting drunks, prostitutes, slum dwellers, crowded tenements, smoke-filled rooms, boxing rings, alleys, and bars. They have a typically spontaneous style, in contradistinction to the rigid techniques of academic art promoted in early 20th century American art schools. Paint was applied thickly in rapid, obvious brushstrokes, using a muted or dark palette. Due to their focus on low-life genre scenes, Ashcan artists were dubbed the "revolutionary black gang" and "apostles of ugliness". Their ideology and style of art was later maintained by the American Scene Painting movement.

One of the first collectors of works by artists belonging to the Ashcan School was Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875-1942). See her 1916 Portrait by Robert Henri.

Artists of the Ashcan School

Robert Henri (1865-1921)
Born in Cincinnati, Henri's later works are characterized by heavy impasto, a darker palette and rapid, slashing brushwork giving his works a visible sense of immediacy.

Everett Shinn (1876-1953)
Born in New Jersey, he was the youngest member of the Ashcan group. He preferred to paint scenes of theatre and music hall life, rather than everyday working class scenes.

George Benjamin Luks (1866-1933)
Born in Pennsylvania, he lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and taught for several years at the Art Students League. Typically he highlights the joy and beauty in the life of the poor instead of the tragedy.

William Glackens (1870-1938)
Born in Philadelphia, he often painted the neighbourhood around his art studio in Washington Square Park. Also, similar to the classical Impressionist Edouard Manet, he conveyed the glitter of urban nightlife, to which he added canvases of mundane events like daily shopping.

John Sloan (1871-1951)
Born in Pennsylvania, Sloan was the most politically committed of the Ashcan artists. In 1910, his focus on American social conditions led him to join the Socialist Party. A teacher for over 20 years at the Art Students League, his pupils included Alexander Calder the inventor of mobiles and a pioneer of kinetic art; the famous Abstract Expressionist Barnett Newman, and the influential sculptor David Smith.

Maurice Brazil Prendergast (1858–1924)
Canadian-born American post-Impressionist painter in oils and watercolours. He usually depicted people involved in leisure activities. A friend of the French Intimist painters Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940) and Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947), Prendergast's personal "mosaic" style employed contrasting, jewel-like colors, and patternlike flat areas of unmodulated colour.

Arthur Bowen Davies (1863–1928)
Born in New York state, he trained at the Chicago Academy of Design and briefly at the Art Institute of Chicago. Now best remembered for his role in promoting modern art, he was the main organizer of the Armory Show in 1913.

Edward Hopper (1882-1967)
Famous American realist painter, born in New York state, best known for his remarkable genre-paintings that consciously or unconsciously captured the loneliness of 20th century urban life.

George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925)
Born in Columbus Ohio, Bellows was an athlete, and hence best known for his sports pictures painted with a vivid sense of movement and energetic brush strokes. His strong social conscience is obvious in his pictures of crowded slum tenements. Achieved late success with lithographs.

Jerome Myers (1867-1940)
Born in Virginia to a poor family, his deprived background led him to paint New York's slums, though in a romanticized way rather than in the politically motivated way of the Socialist Realists. A founder member of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors that organized the Armory show.

Ashcan School Paintings

The artists of the Ashcan School were responsible for one or two of the greatest paintings of the 20th century, within the idiom of urban genre scenes. See, for instance, the following:

• William Glackens: Coney Island Fruit Stand (1898) Private Collection
• Everett Shinn: Cross Streets of New York (1899) Corcoran Gallery of Art, DC
• Maurice Prendergast: Central Park (1901) Whitney Museum of American Art
• Robert Henri: Snow in New York (1902) National Gallery of Art DC
• George B. Luks: Allen Street (1905) Hunter Museum of American Art
• George B. Luks: The Wrestlers (1905) Boston Museum of Fine Arts
• George Bellows: A Stag at Sharkey's (1907) Cleveland Museum of Art
• John Sloan: Wake of the Ferry (1907) Phillips Collection, Washington DC
• Edward Hopper: Summer Interior (1909) Whitney Museum of American Art
• George Bellows: Both Members of This Club (1909) National Gallery of Art DC
• William Glackens: Italo-American Celebration (1912) Boston MFA
• John Sloan: McSorley's Bar (1912) Detroit Institute of Arts
• George Bellows: Cliff Dwellers (1913) Los Angeles County Museum of Art
• George Luks: Houston Street (1917) Saint Louis Art Museum
• John Sloan: Sixth Avenue Elevated at Third Street (1928) Private Collection
• Arthur B. Davies: Elysian Fields (undated) Phillips Collection, Washington DC

Compared to Social Realism

Curiously, despite their focus on slum-life and other gritty subjects, Ashcan School artists are now seen as far less unconventional than they themselves supposed. Grounded mostly in the 19th century, rather than the 20th century, they were more interested in the picturesque aspects of their compositions than in the moral or social issues involved. It was not until after The Depression, and the emergence of Social Realism during the 1930s, that these issues became a force in American art.

For examples of regionalist realism, see the Iowan Grant Wood (1892-1942) and the Pennsylvanian painter Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009).

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