Populist, expansive, and committed to documentary realism
In the early part of the twentieth century, a maverick group of painters in New York City set the foundation for depicting the sheer variety and scale of life in the changing, surging metropolis. Their name, like that of the Impressionists, was initially a term of derision branded by the prevailing critics, though it ultimately became their banner of pride. The painters of the Ashcan School wanted to create a new kind of art rooted in the raw, visceral day-to-day reality of the city—not the New York that was depicted by the popular painters of the time, the American Impressionists William Merritt Chase and Childe Hassam—the decidedly posh, haute bourgeoisie New York of Park Avenue, Central Park, and Washington Square—but the New York of the Lower East Side and the Bowery, of newly arrived immigrants, dockworkers, nightclub performers, saloonkeepers, boxers, and the average worker trying to make ends meet while squeezing whatever small pleasure there was to be had out of life.
Their art was populist, expansive, and committed to a documentary realism that was far-reaching and ahead of its time. The poetry of Walt Whitman, the prose of Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser, the plays of Eugene O’Neill, and the music of ragtime and Tin Pan Alley comprised their emotional and spiritual soundtrack. The painting above by George Bellows of Madison Square at the intersection of Broadway and Twenty-third Street echoes the panorama and rhythms of Whitman’s 1888 poem, “Mannahatta”:
“I WAS asking for something specific and perfect for my city,
Whereupon, lo! upsprang the aboriginal name!
I see that the word of my city is that word up there,
Because I see that word nested in nests of water-bays, superb, with
tall and wonderful spires…
Numberless crowded streets—high growths of iron, slender, strong,
light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies…
Immigrants arriving, fifteen or twenty thousand in a week;
The carts hauling goods—the manly race of drivers of horses—the brown-faced
The summer air, the bright sun shining, and the sailing clouds aloft;
The winter snows, the sleigh-bells—the broken ice in the river,
passing along, up or down, with the flood tide or ebb-tide…
The mechanics of the city, the masters, well-form’d, beautiful-faced,
looking you straight in the eyes;
Trottoirs throng’d—vehicles—Broadway—the women—the shops and
A million people—manners free and superb—open voices—hospitality—
the most courageous and friendly young men;
The free city! no slaves! no owners of slaves!
The beautiful city, the city of hurried and sparkling waters! the
city of spires and masts!
The city nested in bays! my city!”
The sparkling subject of Whitman’s poem—the expanse of city landscape and life in all its diversity, color, and noise—is at the core of what the Ashcan School painters depicted in much of their work. They wanted to show New York City as it evolved from a sleepy Dutch island into the vital cultural capital of America.
Too many pictures of ashcans?
The Ashcan School formed out of an urge to rebel against the dogmatic criteria of popular painting of the time, namely American Impressionism and academic realism. In the spring of 1907, the Philadelphia-trained painter Robert Henri rallied his friends, John Sloan, Everett Shin, Arthur Davies, Ernest Lawson, Maurice Prendergast, William Glackens, and George Luks when Luks’ painting, Man with Dyed Mustachios, was rejected by the conservative National Academy for their Spring Exhibition.
Working together with the prominent Fifth Avenue dealer, William Macbeth, the group set up their first major exhibition at The Macbeth Gallery in February 1908 called Eight American Painters, which later became known simply as “The Eight.” Though he did not participate in the show, the other Ohio-born painter in the group, George Bellows, also joined the Ashcan artists in creating iconic paintings of the city in all its gritty splendor. Their work struck a nerve among emerging collectors: Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney purchased four paintings from the show that would become the basis for the permanent collection of her Whitney Museum of American Art.
It was eight years later, however, in 1916, that the group got their evocative name. John Sloan, Robert Henri, and George Bellows were also illustrators for the well-known socialist magazine, The Masses, and one of their staff members voiced a complaint that there were too many “pictures of ashcans and girls hitching up their skirts on Horatio Street.” The artists were amused and flattered, and the name stuck.
Painting true to life
In the 1920s, John Sloan spoke of how the unofficial leader of the group was Robert Henri, a distant cousin of Mary Cassatt’s and the son of a professional gambler and real estate developer who once shot a man to death over a land dispute:
It was really Henri’s direction that made us paint at all, and paint the life around us. The American genre painters Winslow Homer, Eastman Johnson, and William Sidney Mount had painted life around them, but we thought their work was too tight and finished. There were many other artists drawing for newspapers in Chicago, San Francisco…but they did not turn to painting. I feel certain that the reason our group in Philadelphia became painters is due to Henri. 1
Painting true to life was the key to the Ashcan School’s visual distinction in subject matter and fame. Like the artists of nineteenth century France, Honoré Daumier, Édouard Manet, and Gustave Courbet, the Ashcan painters captured those fleeting scenes of everyday life among the middle and lower classes at work and at leisure.
Paintings like William Glackens’ Hammerstein’s Roof Garden (left), John Sloan’s Chinese Restaurant (above), and George Bellows’ Stag at Sharkey’s (above), show the sheer variety of entertainment that the city had to offer with people reveling in the moment regardless of propriety and decorum. There is a documentary feel and intense presentness to the scenes depicted, from the woman feeding the cat in the John Sloan painting to the man with the cigar turning his face towards us in the George Bellows, we get an immediate sense of the vitality and evanescence of a society in transition, a newly emergent urban middle class with enough money and time for the short transitory pleasures of the city.
There were also paintings of longshoremen, laundresses, bartenders, and waitresses, all a part of a dynamic working class. The influx of immigration to America from Europe filled the workforce in cities, driving down demand and allowing employers to reduce wages. Many people became part of what was known as “the working poor,” living payday-to-payday. The Danish-American photographer Jacob Riis exposed the staggering poverty and squalor of the Lower East Side’s residents in his groundbreaking series, How the Other Half Lives (1890).
The Ashcan painters were generally not as direct and confrontational as Riis in his “muckraking” approach to social reform. They were not reformers, or even explicitly political, aside from illustrating for The Masses and frequenting occasional Socialist salons, which was the fashion among intellectuals in New York City at the time. The artists of the Ashcan School would not adopt political doctrine as did some contemporaneous movements in Europe, such as the Constructivists, who were decidedly more political and utopian in its aims. Rather, the Ashcan painters wanted to depict the American worker in a straightforward manner devoid of cant and propaganda: revealing the simplicity and beauty of the American at work and at play.
It’s important to remember the painters of the Ashcan School didn’t limit themselves to scenes of the city and its people but also painted a variety of pastoral landscapes. John Sloan and Robert Henri, who both had a classical training under Thomas Anschutz at The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, felt that the role of the American painter of the twentieth century was not confined to a specific social agenda but involved an expansive application of techniques and methods in a variety of genres.
Robert Henri’s Cumulus Clouds, East River (above) depicting a sunset and a swirling mass of thick coral cloud along the docks of Upper New York Bay, has echoes of the seascapes of nineteenth-century Romanticism, particularly those of J.M.W. Turner. John Sloan’s Sunflowers at Rocky Neck (below) painted along the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts, was based in part on the swirling vibrancy of Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers (1888), which Sloan saw at the Armory Show of 1913 in New York along with other works of European Post-Impressionism and modernist painting.
Sloan along with Henri had helped organize The Armory Show, which was a turning point for modern art in America. The public’s exposure to avant-garde work by artists like Marcel Duchamp, Paul Cézanne, Georges Braque, and Henri Matisse, among others, set the tone for the kind of art that Americans thought they should be making if they wanted to keep up with the tide of modernism across the world—art that was startlingly free of academic expectations of realism and conservative thought.
Food for starving souls
Though the Armory Show eventually helped propagate a new style of modern painting exemplified by artists like Stuart Davis (a student of Henri’s), Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, and Georgia O’Keefe, the impact of the Ashcan School was far-reaching in American figurative painting for much of the twentieth century. The work of Edward Hopper (another of Henri’s famous pupils) owes a great deal to the subject matter and style of the Ashcan painters in terms of its propensity for human tableaus, theatricality, and detailed intimacy. Contemporaries of Hopper, Charles Burchfield and George Ault, were also inspired by the pioneering work of the Ashcan School, whose stylistic influence is palpable in their city scenes and melancholy vistas.
The lasting legacy of the Ashcan School is that for the first time in the twentieth century, American painting took on a populist commitment dedicated to depicting the reality of life in a changing, diverse, cosmopolitan society. Though the artists themselves never professed to be agents of social change they were bound together by a shared interest in providing meaningful and enjoyable artwork for a large audience: art for everyone and anyone. Writing in the 1930s, in his autobiography, John Sloan described the importance of art in everyday life as a fundamental need that is essential to one’s spiritual survival:
They say that art is a luxury because of the depression. But I really believe this is the time when people should turn to the artists. Not the artist whose work is selling for thousands, but the interesting work of men who sell their things for reasonable figures. I believe the work of artists, poets, musicians, is a kind of food for starving souls, as necessary as food for the body. Why should we worry about feeding bodies if they have starving souls? That may sound churchy but I don’t mean it so. Select your own soul-food in the way of art.2
What Sloan is espousing might seem naïve to some, but as a man who came of age in that period of American history between the end of The Civil War and through World War I, the Roaring Twenties, and the Great Depression, prosperity and poverty were two sides of a swiftly spinning coin in collective fortunes. Art had the ability to provide enlightenment, education, and spiritual fulfillment to an enormous audience, and the painters of the Ashcan School were among the first to expand its changing role in American life.
1. As quoted in Rebecca Zurier, Picturing the City: Urban Vision and the Ashcan School (University of California Press: Los Angeles, 2006), p. 25.
2. As quoted in John Sloan on Drawing and Painting: The Gist of Art (Dover Publications: New York, 2010), p. 26.
Bernard Perlman, Painters of the Ashcan School: The Immortal Eight (Dover Publications: New York, 2012).
Rebecca Zurier, Picturing the City: Urban Vision and the Ashcan School (University of California Press: Los Angeles, 2006).
Smarthistory images for teaching and learning: