The Ashcan Artists

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Henri, their mentor, exhorted them to go out into the city streets and paint life as they found it.

The Ashcan school of artists consisted of George Bellows, William Glackens, Robert Henri, George Luks, Everett Shinn and John Sloan. Henri was their unnamed leader in as much as it was he who encouraged them to go out into the city streets and paint life as they found it. Using New York as their backdrop the artists depicted scenes, as suggested by Henri, from everyday life.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, New York was a city in constant flux due to factors such as mass immigration, mass construction and large city infrastructure installations, such as the expansion of he elevated train. It was a time when the city was shaping and forming itself, a place where new technological advances in areas such as transport were co-habitating with their older counterparts.

In order to capture the essence of city life the artists employed methods and techniques that would heighten and emphasize the complexion of New York at a time of its genesis. They drew on their previous careers as newspaper illustrators to capture and render from memory ‘run of the mill’ instances such as Everett Shinn’s Window Shopping (collection of Arthur and Holly Magill, 1903) which depicts a woman window shopping or John Sloan’s Six o’clock Winter, (The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.) which represents different types of people gathered by the El, or elevated railway, on a winter’s evening. The sketchy attribute of their paintings intensified the impressions of speed, fleeting and the hustle and bustle associated with city life. New York, (National Gallery of Art Washington DC, 1911), painted by George Bellows, portrays different forms of transport integrated with crowds of people in the foreground. Skyscrapers dominate the background. Little importance is given to detail; the visibility of brush strokes adds to the sketchy appearance of the painting. The artists depicted New Yorkers; rich, poor, native, immigrant, at work and at play. In his painting, Tenements at Hester Street (The Phillips Collection Washington DC 1900), Shin characterized tenement life by portraying people sleeping on the roofs of their dwellings to escape the stifling heat of the summer. The paper that the picture is painted on is used as a constituent of the painting. In taking up Henri’s challenge and adopting methods that they had employed whilst as artist-reporters, the artists were placed in conflict with the governing body in art at the time; the Academy.

The Academy imposed a hierarchy of subject matter. Historical or mythological themes were at the top. It also set out the training individuals had to undertake before they could call themselves accomplished. By means of juried exhibitions it regulated the art works that would be viewed by the public. This break from academic traditions initiated by the Ashcan school can not only be seen by their choice of subject matter but also by the staging of an exhibition organised by some of the artists. In contempt of the academy’s rejection of the work of the Ashcan artists Henri set up an exhibition that was organized by artists, for artists, but most importantly there were no juries. The exhibition was held at the MacBeth Galleries. This gutsy stance by the artists signified a weakening of the influence of the Academy (but by no means did this break the influence of the Academy). The exhibition marks a significant departure from the American art establishment and has come to be known as THE EIGHT exhibition.

It is hard to imagine that, at the time, the exhibition was a milestone for art and artists in America yet in my opinion this radicalism never infected their paintings to the same extent. Their paintings of a New Yorker’s existence were no more than a representation of the make up of New York’s emerging persona. Their work never challenges the prevailing status quo. The artists stay with recognized conventions or notions, for example, they depict the poor as happy with their lot and they employ well-known racial stereotypes. In a way this is quite surprising as the Ashcan artists were active in the socialist beliefs.
Sloan produced work for the Masses, whilst other members were known associates of the anarchist Emma Goldman. This lack of radicalism in their depictions suggests that they themselves were bound by self-imposed rules concerning art. Therefore, their works can be seen as radical as opposed to RADICAL.
Websites to visit
Books to Read

Metropolitan Lives by Rebecca Zurer, Robert W Snyder and Virginia M Mecklenburg, The National Museum of American Art, Washington, 1996.

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