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Ashcan School Collage

Ashcan School

Started: 1900
Ended: 1915
Ashcan School Timeline
"Do whatever you do intensely. The artist is the man who leaves the crowd and goes pioneering. With him there is an idea which is his life."
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Robert Henri Signature
"Painting is drawing, with the additional means of color. Painting without drawing is just 'coloriness,' color excitement. To think of color for color's sake is like thinking of sound for sound's sake. Color is like music. The palette is an instrument that can be orchestrated to build form."
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John Sloan Signature
"Art my slats! Guts! Guts! Life! Life! I can paint with a shoestring dipped in pitch and lard."
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George Luks
"Paint the flying spirit of the bird rather than its feathers."
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Robert Henri Signature
"Part of this is finding things and documenting them. A lot of things are not going to be here 5 to 10 years from now."
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George Bellows Signature
"The object isn't to make art, it's to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable."
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Robert Henri Signature
"The ideal artist is he who knows everything, feels everything, experiences everything, and retains his experience in a spirit of wonder and feeds upon it with creative lust..."
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George Bellows Signature

Summary of Ashcan School

Known for its gritty urban subject matter, dark palette, and gestural brushwork, the Ashcan School was a loosely knit group of artists based in New York City who were inspired by the painter Robert Henri. The group believed in the worthiness of immigrant and working-class life as artistic subject matter and in an art that depicted the real rather than an elitist ideal. While their subject matter was revolutionary, their manner of painting finds precedents in the Realism of 17th-century Spanish and Dutch art, and also with 19th-century French painting. In the United States, prior to the arrival of the Ashcan School, American Impressionism, with its pleasing and luscious displays of the feminine and peaceful idylls, held sway. After the Ashcan School, more artists focused on modernity and their own expressive reactions to what they encountered. Their main achievement was to reverse the formula of previous New York painters by focusing on the dynamic energy of the people. Yet, with the arrival of European modernism to New York via the Armory Show (1913), the Ashcan School was retrograde in comparison.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • Henri and the other painters pursued authenticity in art, a quality associated with direct experience, immediacy of execution, and a new emphasis on the truth and validity of one's first impression. This resulted in canvases which portray a sense of haste and liveliness, of the working people of New York, and of a release from the artist's need to create beauty from the extraordinary.
  • Modernism brought with it a new sense of the visual. Ashcan School artists were interested in new modes of seeing and being seen in modern New York City: people walking in parks, prostitutes on the street, artificial lights in boxing arenas and vaudeville reviews, a film projecting in a movie theater that illuminates the working-class audience, and the great proliferation of images due to advances in publishing and mass media.
  • The Ashcan School artists rejected skillful, finished drawing and the ability to render the outward appearance of people and things and instead celebrated personal vision.
  • The works' sketchy quality, vigorous paint application, and sense of reportage came from the artists' training as newspaper illustrators who captured the spectacle of the expanding modern metropolis. The artists sought new forms of Realism to describe the rapid and great changes in urban life, commercial culture, and codes of social contact.

Overview of Ashcan School

Ashcan School Image

At the turn of the last century, a group of young artists appeared who were set on challenging the refinement, polish, and idealistic American Impressionists who then dominated the art scene. Philadelphia's Robert Henri was the leader of the group which was made up of John Sloan, Everett Shinn, George Luks, and William Glackens. Each one varied in style and subject matter; yet, all were urban realists who adhered to Henri's motto "art for life's sake," rather than "art for art's sake." Despite their common economic and ethnic backgrounds, each approached the urban scene in a unique manner. Henri had studied at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Art, as well as at Paris's Academie Julian. He began to mentor the four artists, all of whom were newspaper illustrators, circa 1892; we consider this grouping to be the first generation of Ashcan School painters. The second generation commenced with Henri's move to Manhattan and the inclusion of his New York student George Bellows.

Key Artists

  • The leader of the Ashcan School, the painter Robert Henri pave the way for the development of twentieth-century American Realism.
  • Glackens invigorated American painting, developed Impressionism, joined the Ashcan School, and focused on scenes of leisure rather than the slums that his peers preferred.
  • George Bellows was an artist known for his realist, Ashcan School depictions of daily life in New York, in particular his boxing scenes.
  • John Sloan was a leader and founding member of The Eight and the Ashcan School of realist painting. Beginning in 1914, Sloan was also an influential art teacher at The Art Students League of New York.

Do Not Miss

  • The artistic history of the US stretches from indigenous art and Hudson River School into Contemporary art. Enjoy our guide through the many American movements.
  • Realism is an approach to art that stresses the naturalistic representation of things, the look of objects and figures in ordinary life. It emerged as a distinct movement in the mid-nineteenth century, in opposition to the idealistic, sometimes mythical subjects that were then popular, but it can be traced back to sixteenth-century Dutch art and forward into twentieth-century styles such as Social Realism.

Important Art and Artists of Ashcan School

Portrait of Willie Gee (1904)

Artist: Robert Henri

Willie Gee, an African-American boy of a tender age, is seated with an apple in hand and wearing rumpled clothing. The artist noted in his daybooks that Gee was the son of a woman who had been a slave in Virginia and had recently moved north. The nondescript, brushy background of browns and grays offers little commentary or details as to who Gee actually is and in its simplicity renders the young boy as quite humble. Henri's fluid brushwork, most noticeable on Gee's coat sleeve and white collar, is there to suggest the activity and movement one usually associates with young children. Traditionally the patrons of child portraiture were moneyed individuals who sought to celebrate their notable lineage or remember deceased children. There was no wealthy patron in this case, and Willie Gee was just a neighborhood child of the working class who appealed to the artist. Henri and his followers rarely ventured into New York's African-American neighborhoods, concentrating instead on the immigrant inhabitants of Lower Manhattan. Here, Henri breaks from the dominant stereotypes of African Americans then found in visual culture.

At Mouquin's (1905)

Artist: William Glackens

At Mouquin's remains Glackens' most celebrated and grand painting. In the foreground, the fashionable outerwear slung over the back of a chair leads our eye into the center of the painting where Glackens posed friends as elegant New Yorkers out on the town. The work's sophistication and psychological content in the woman's countenance prompted critics to compare Glackens to Édouard Manet. The clever use of mirrors to replicate and expand the special plane call to mind Manet's masterwork The Bar at the Folies Bergere (1881-82). While a young man in Paris, Glackens followed Henri's direction to seek out works by Manet. Here, Glackens turns his attention to new social spaces, such as this fancy restaurant, and new social relationships which reveal interior states (this was the era of Freud's initial publications on human psychology). We glance upon the woman's face, which is turned away from her jubilant partner and seems melancholy, if not weary, as she gazes off the canvas. As hers is the most forward visage in the composition, we connect most with this woman and her seeming isolation.

Hester Street (1905)

Artist: George Luks

In 1904, after a twenty-year extended sojourn away from his native country, famed novelist and essayist Henry James returned to his dramatically changed birthplace; where he went and what he observed culminated in his collection of essays The American Scene (1907). Appalled by the arriving European masses, James was frightened that the "hodgepodge" of racial characteristics they brought to the United States would dilute the true meaning of being an American. James wholehearted supported the primacy of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and viewed the Jews, the Italians, and the Irish as racial others and outsiders.

In contrast to James, Luks delighted in this culturally diverse urban sprawl jam packed with humanity, found on New York's Lower East Side. By 1905, the downtown streets were crowded with substandard tenements and were home to the Eastern-European Jews who had arrived on these shores by the hundreds of thousands. Luks, a rough and tough character himself, wholly embraced the busy chaos of this spectacle. Luks's method was to make quick sketches onsite, which he would use as the basis of his painting. The artist applied paint with a fluid, rapid brush in order to capture the energy of the scene. Here, Luks brings us into the swell of the crowds, rather than maintain a distance, which allows viewers to viscerally experience the mass of humanity that populated the poor neighborhoods of New York. Further, while Luks isolates ethnic and racial types within this canvas (note the bearded Jewish men at left with side locks), he does not give into cheap ethnic stereotypes which were so common at the time. The modernity and newness of the image comes through in its innovative subject matter (most artists turned away from the immigrant classes as subjects) and the air of excitement Luks conveys.

Useful Resources on Ashcan School

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Ashcan School Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 25 Jan 2015. Updated and modified regularly
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