Distinguishable for its gritty urban themes, murky palette and gestural brushwork, the Ashcan School was a loose group of artists based in New York City during the early 20th century. Members of this group believed in the value of immigrant and working-class life as artistic subject matter, suggesting that art had a duty of depicting the real rather than an elitist ideal. Through their realist techniques, painters of the Ashcan School dealt with social deprivation and injustice in the American metropolitan environment of their time.
Just like many earlier movements in art history, such as Impressionism, Fauvism and the Gothic style, Ashcan School was also named after a snarky insult. The term which became the group’s name was originally coined by New York journalists which were not impressed by the way these artists were painting their artworks. However, although these painters were under critical fire for the majority of their careers, they still managed to achieve their revolutionary goals. Nowadays, the Ashcan School is one of the finest examples of how early 20th century artists were able to rebel against conservative American tastes - which were, in fact, a lot more traditional than most academic leanings of Europe.
While the Ashcan School subject matter was quite revolutionary for the American scene, representatives of this group utilized a manner of painting which resembles the Realism of the 17th-century Spanish and Dutch artists. They also found certain French 19th-century painting techniques fascinating, often incorporating similar methods in their own artworks. Many decisions regarding both the Ashcan School’s techniques and themes were made by a painter Robert Henri, an unofficial leader of the group who spearheaded much of its concepts. We shall now go through the history of the Ashcan School, the main ideas behind the group and it’s most notable representatives, as well as analyze just how influential this organization was to the overall history of American art.
During the early 20th century, an American organization particularly interested in the avant-garde was The Eight, a group of painters circled around the charismatic teacher and painter Robert Henri. These artists were rebelling against the traditional norms of the New York scene and their first official volley against the strict rules of the National Academy came in 1908. That same year, The Eight held its only exhibition in New York City, introducing their own alternative ways of expression. Invigorated by the success, this NY group expanded and was joined by numerous new members. Soon there were simply too many individuals within the organization and the members decided that splitting up in various smaller groups was a good way of better functioning and expanding their avant-garde notions through the artistic scene of the United States. The most influential of these smaller groups came to be known as The Ashcan School, a section fueled by the art of Robert Henri, George Bellows, John Sloan, George Luks and Everett Shinn. Many of their most famous works were painted in the first decade of the century - some were made even before The Eight started splitting up. Regardless, these painters were not observed as a group prior to this separation. Ashcan painters did not concern themselves with idealized beauty, instead opting to portray a realistic perspective of the gritty life of New York's poorer neighborhoods and rich colorful streets. After all, this was the only home most of these artists knew and it simply made more sense to pursue such themes than any other idealized theme from the elite of Europe and America.
First of all, it should be noted that the Ashcan School was not a well-organized movement. The artists were gathered around the same opinion and a similar style of painting, but there were no manifestos and many members did not even see themselves as a unified group with identical intentions or goals. It is also recorded that many of them had rather opposite political views whilst a few of them were completely apolitical. Despite such differences, what held the Ashcan School together was a unity consisted of a desire to tell certain truths about New York City and the modern life they felt had been ignored by the suffocating traditions of visual arts. They sought brutal and raw accuracy, unfiltered and uncompromised reality - Robert Henri once stated that he wanted art to be akin to journalism, he wanted the paint to be as real as mud and snow that froze on Broadway in the winter.
In order to transport such a raw depiction of New York onto the canvas, painters of the Ashcan School relied on a robust and unfettered style which was strongly influenced by the poetry of Walt Whitman, Henri’s favorite poet. Unafraid of offending contemporary elitist taste, these artists substituted studios and salons with working and middle-class settings of New York. During the early 20th century, American Impressionism and academic realism were the two most respected and commercially successful styles in the United States. Some of the main painters of these styles, such as John Singer Sargent, William Merritt Chase and Kenyon Cox, served a big indirect role within the Ashcan School as all of its members sought to paint in a perfectly opposite style from their highly polished work. They presented the audience with scenes which were generally darker in tone and more roughly painted.
As was said earlier, many painters of the Ashcan School aimed to capture the harsher moments of modern life in New York City. Among more popular themes were depictions of poor street kids, prostitutes, alcoholics, people walking in parks, subways, crowded homes, artificial lights in arenas, vaudeville reviews, tumultuous theaters, bloodied boxers and wrestlers. All such pieces were underlined by a focus on poverty and the gritty realities of a city life. In other terms, Ash painters pursued authenticity in art, a quality correlated with direct experience and a new emphasis on validity. This resulted in canvases which portray a sense of haste and liveliness commonly found within the everyday life of the working people in New York. Interestingly, the kind of paintings the Ashcan School representatives were making were not intended for the subjects they painted - instead, they were aimed at elitist circles of society which were naturally not very interested in the harsh conditions of the poor. Many critics and curators considered the works and themes of Ashcan School too unsettling for mainstream audiences and collections.
Many of the Ashcan painters had backgrounds as newspaper illustrators, a feature which heavily influenced their art by adding a noticeable element of reportage to it. Many of them spent some time traveling and studying in Europe as well. The already mentioned Robert Henri was the pivotal artist of the movement as his heavy impasto technique, darker palette and rapid brushwork inspired all other Ashcan painters. Robert’s most famous paintings are the Portrait of Willie Gee (1904) and the Snow Scene at the 57th Street (1902). Often regarded as the second most influential painter of the moment, Everett Shinn was also the youngest representative of the Ashcan School. Although he shared all the characteristics commonly found in Henri’s pieces, Shinn preferred to paint scenes of theater and music hall life rather than everyday working class scenes. Nonetheless, he had a massive influence on his colleagues and his Footlight Flirtation (1912) is regarded as one of the greatest pieces of the movement. A bit more joyous in style than his Ashcan colleagues, George Benjamin Luks highlighted the delight and beauty in the life of the poor instead of the tragedy. His Wrestlers (1905) and Hester Street (1905) are often used as examples of Luks’ greatest paintings.
Definitely the most politically committed of all the Ashcan artists, John Sloan was a teacher and a member of the Socialist Party. Despite committing much of his time to political activities, Sloan managed to paint many works that served a major role within the Ashcan School. The two of his most renowned pieces are the McSorley's Bar (1912), Cover: The Masses (1914) and Sixth Avenue Elevated at Third Street (1928). Another notable member of the movement was George Wesley Bellows. Since he was an athlete, many of his depictions were sports pictures painted with a vivid sense of movement and energetic brush strokes. His strong social conscience is obvious in his pictures of crowded compositions, such as his most famous artwork titled the Forty-Two Kids (1907). Besides the aforementioned artists, other notable members of the Ashcan School were Maurice Brazil Prendergast, Arthur Bowen Davies, Edward Hopper, Jerome Myers and William Glackens, all of which had huge contributions to the development of the movement.
During the year of 1913, the now iconic Armory Show was mounted in New York. This exhibition was the first opportunity for Americans to see genuine European avant-garde art first hand. When the show opened its doors to the public, it was a creative earthquake that shook the entire scene of American art. Although some artists and pundits were impressed by the displayed artworks, many saw the show as something shocking and even dangerous. However, despite the controversies surrounding this exhibition, many were eager to adopt the excitement of European modern art. This will eventually prove to be the end of the Ashcan School. As European modernism exploded onto the American art scene, the Ashcan’s realism simply began to look dated and out of touch in the face of Cubism and Fauvism. Ultimately, their artistic rebellion was over not long after it had begun. It was the fate of the Ashcan realists to be seen by many art lovers as too radical in 1910 and, by many more, as old-fashioned mere couple of years later.
Despite the unglamorous ending of the group, the Ashcan School managed to reverse the formula of previous New York painters by focusing on the dynamic energy of the people. Their art was populist, communicative and committed to a documentary realism, all innovations way ahead of their time. Their artworks were far-reaching for many modern movements and concepts, ranging from street photography to the late 20th-century idea of art for everyone and anyone. Their ideology and style of art were later maintained by the American Scene Painting movement as well. The Ashcan School is also regarded as the first time that American painting started depicting the reality of life in a changing, diverse, cosmopolitan society. The artists of this movement painted pieces which were the perfect reflection of the rapid social growth and great changes that came with urban life.
Editors’ Tip: Picturing the City: Urban Vision and the Ashcan School
Picturing the City takes an innovative look at the group of urban realists known as the Ashcan School and at the booming cultures of vision and representation in early twentieth-century New York. Offering fresh insights into the development of modern cities and modern art in America, Rebecca Zurier considers what it meant to live in a city where strangers habitually watched each other and public life seemed to consist of continual display, as new classes of immigrants and working men claimed their places in the metropolis. Through her study of six artists — George Bellows, William Glackens, Robert Henri, George Luks, Everett Shinn and John Sloan — Zurier illuminates the quest for new forms of realism to describe changes in urban life, commercial culture and codes of social conduct in the early 1900s. By situating the Ashcan School within its proper visual culture, Zurier opens up the question of what the artists’ “realism” meant at a time when many other forms of representation, including journalism and cinema, were competing to define “real life” in New York City.
Featured images: George Bellows - Both Members of This Club, 1909 - Image via wikimedia.org ; George Luks - Hester Street, 1905 - Image via ephermeralnewyork.com ; George Bellows - Men of the Docks, 1912 - Image via wikimedia.org ; George Bellows - Forty Two Kids, 1907 - Image via oceansbridge.com
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