Ashcan School of Painting (c.1900-1915)
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).
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.
MEANING OF ART
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.
Robert Henri (1865-1921)
Everett Shinn (1876-1953)
George Benjamin Luks (1866-1933)
William Glackens (1870-1938)
John Sloan (1871-1951)
Maurice Brazil Prendergast (18581924)
Arthur Bowen Davies (18631928)
Wesley Bellows (1882-1925)
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
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.
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