The Ashcan School was the first art movement of the new century in America, and its first specifically modern style. Active in the first two decades of the twentieth century, Ashcan artists opposed the formality of conservative American art by painting urban subjects in a gritty, realistic manner. They gave form to the tough, optimistic, socially conscious outlook associated with Theodore Roosevelt's time. The Ashcan School artists shared a similar muckraking spirit with contemporary social reformers. Their exuberant and romantic sense of democracy had earlier been expressed in the poetry of Walt Whitman.
At a time before the camera had not yet replaced the hand-drawn sketch, four Philadelphia artist-reporters—William Glackens, John Sloan, George Luks, and Everett Shinn—gathered around the artist Robert Henri (1865-1929), first in his Walnut Street studio, then later in New York. Henri painted portraits in heavy, dark brown brushstrokes in a manner reminiscent of the Dutch painter Frans Hals. He taught at the New York School of Art between 1902 and 1912 where some of his students included the Ashcan artists George Bellows, Stuart Davis, and Edward Hopper. The artists exhibited together only once, as "The Eight"—a term now synonymous with the Ashcan School—at the Macbeth Gallery in New York City in 1908. They had formally banded together when the National Academy of Design refused to show their works.
Better thought of as New York Realists, the Ashcan artists were fascinated by the lifestyles of the inhabitants of the Lower East Side and Greenwich Village, and of New York and the urban experience in general. Conservative critics objected to their choice of subjects. Nightclubs, immigrants, sporting events, and alleys were not considered appropriate subjects for high art. It was in this spirit that the art critic and historian Holger Cahill first used the term "Ashcan School" … ashcan meaning garbage can … in a 1934 book about recent art.
John Sloan (1871-1951), the most renowned Ashcan artist, made images of city streets, Greenwich Village backyards, and somewhat voyeuristic views of women of the city. His most well known painting, but one which is not entirely typical of his art, is The Wake of the Ferry II (1907, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.). The dull blues and greens of the ship's deck and the steely water introduced an element of melancholy in what millions of commuters experienced daily on the Staten Island Ferry. Sloan's art sometimes reflected his socialist leanings, but never at the expense of a warm humanity. Although he made etchings for the left wing periodical The Masses, he refused to inject his art with "socialist propaganda," as he once said.
The reputation of George Luks (1867-1933) rests on the machismo and bluster of his art and of his own personality. "Guts! Guts! Life! Life! That's my technique!" he claimed. He had been an amateur actor—which undoubtedly helped him in his pose as a bohemian artist—and had drawn comic strips in the 1890s before meeting Henri at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. His Hester Street (1905, The Brooklyn Museum) shows Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side in an earnest, unstereotypical manner.
George Bellows (1882-1925) was probably the most purely talented of the group, and made many of the most interesting Ashcan paintings of the urban environment. An athletic, outgoing personality, Bellows' most well known paintings involve boxing matches. Composed of fleshy brushstrokes, Stag at Sharkey's (1909, Cleveland Museum of Art) shows a barely legal "club" where drinkers watched amateur sluggers. Bellows was also an accomplished printmaker and made more than 200 lithographs during his career.
Much of the art of the Ashcan School has the quality of illustration. Their heroes included Rembrandt and Francisco Goya, as well as realists such as Honoré Daumier, Edouard Manet, and the American Winslow Homer. But not all the Ashcan artists drew their inspiration from city streets. The paintings of William Glackens (1870-1938) and Everett Shinn (1876-1953) often deal with the world of popular entertainment and fashionable nightlife. Glackens' elegant Chez Mouquin (1905, Art Institute of Chicago), shows one of the favorite haunts of the Ashcan artists. Maurice Prendergast (1859-1924) painted park visitors in a patchy, decorative style. Ernest Lawson (1873-1939) used a hazy, Impressionist technique to paint scenes of New York and the Harlem River. The traditional nude female figures of Arthur B. Davies (1862-1928) seem to owe little to Ashcan art.
The Ashcan School was not a coherent school nor did the artists ever paint ashcans. They expanded the range of subjects for American artists and brought a new vigor to the handling of paint. Their identity as tough observers of the city, unimpressed by contemporary French art, changed the way American artists thought of themselves. They demonstrated that artists who stood apart from the traditional art establishment could attain popular acceptance. Among their contributions was their promotion of jury-less shows which gave artists the right to exhibit with whomever they chose. This spirit of independence was felt in the famous 1913 Armory Show in which some of the organizers were Ashcan artists.
—Mark B. Pohlad
Braider, Donald. George Bellows and the Ashcan School of Painting. Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1971.
Glackens, Ira. William Glackens and the Eight: the Artists who Freed American Art. New York, Horizon Press, 1984.
Perlmann, Bennard P. Painters of the Ashcan School: The Immortal Eight. New York, Dover, 1988.
Zurrier, Rebecca, et al. Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and Their New York. New York, Norton, 1995.
ASHCAN SCHOOL. A group of artists loosely formed a group they called "the Eight" or the Ashcan School because they could find art in the "ashcans" of dirty cities. Led by Robert Henri, the group included George Luks, William Glackens, John Sloan, Everett Shinn, Arthur B. Davies, Maurice Prendergast, and Ernest Lawson, and later it added Henri's prized student George Bellows.
Not a formal society or school, as all were fiercely independent, they shared a common look at every day life through the lens of a journalist and the soul of a poet. Many had work experience as illustrators at magazines or newspapers, which contributed to their journalistic approach. The Ashcan artists disdained the academic pretensions of the established art world, while critics, who did not want to see such vulgarity displayed in art, called the group "the Revolutionary Black Gang."
The Eight held its first exhibition in 1908 and another in 1910. The show was so popular and sensational that riot police had to be called to subdue the crowd. The true impact of the Ashcan School did not occur until three years later with the Armory Show, by some accounts the most important exhibit ever held in the United States. The Armory Show shocked the public by showcasing the outrageous styles adopted by the Eight and by European artists, including Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne, and Henri Matisse. Despite the critical turmoil, more than 300,000
Americans saw the Armory Show, which invented the term "modern art."
Henri and the other original members of the Ashcan movement took Winslow Homer as their spiritual guide and also looked to the great poet Walt Whitman for inspiration. Bellows used the gritty streets as his guide, including the illegal boxing clubs of the early 1900s. His Stag at Sharkey's (1909) and Both Members of This Club (1909) are possibly the most powerful paintings stemming from the group.
Braider, Donald. George Bellows and the Ashcan School of Painting. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971.
Perlman, Bennard B. Painters of the Ashcan School: The Immortal Eight. New York: Dover, 1988.