The Ashcan Painters - Masters of American Reality

Judith Flanders

Magazine issue: 
#2 2011 (31)

An insulting term to dismiss a new type of art, a term that, in turn, becomes the positive identifier of that group, is by now a cliche. In 1874 a journalist in “Le Charivari” newspaper in Paris mocked a young artist named Claude Monet, who was exhibiting a painting called “Impression, Sunrise”: “Impression,” wrote the critic, “I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it ... and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape.” Likewise, when a Donatello sculpture was placed in the same room as some contemporary painters at the 1905 Salon d’Automne, a critic mourned, “Donatello au milieu des fauves” - “Donatello surrounded by wild beasts” - and the term “Fauves” stuck.

The Ashcan painters, however, are unusual in the naming business. At the time they were working, they were highly respected, and some of them were very successful. It was only two decades later, when modernism got a firm grip on the art- world, that they were pigeon-holed as “ashcan” painters, painters of urban realism and nothing more, by Holger Cahill and Alfred Barr of the Museum of Modern Art, in their 1934 book “Art in America”. Yet, as “An American Experiment: George Bellows and the Ashcan Painters” at London’s National Gallery (which closed at the end of May) shows, the Ashcan school was both more radical, and more traditional, than that name allows.

Depictions of urban life, of modernity, of a world that seemed to be changing at speed, were nothing new in the first decades of the 20th century. The artists of “Die Brucke” (The Bridge) and of the “Neue Sachlichkeit” (The New Objectivity) in Germany, together with Walter Sickert and the Camden Town school in Britain, were all looking at a newly industrialized world, and attempting to map it out in art.

Robert Henri, the focal point of the Ashcan school, and mentor to many, suggested that instead of “art for art’s sake” artists should work towards an art for life: “All art that is worthwhile is a record of intense life,” he wrote.

Henri (1865-1929), despite his French-looking name, was from Cincinnati, Ohio, and he was born Robert Henry Cozad. It was only when he was 18, when his father killed someone, that he changed his name: he took his middle name, gave it a French-ending but always insisted, perversely, that it should be pronounced “American-style”: HEN-rye. Whichever way it was pronounced, Henri trained in Paris, studying at the famous Academie Julian, before returning in the 1890s to teach art in Philadelphia.

There he met a group of newspaper reporters and illustrators — William Glackens (1870-1938), George Luks (18671933), John Sloane (1871-1951), and Everett Shinn (1876-1953). At the end of the century, many journalists not only provided descriptions of events, but drawings of them as well: before photographs were easily reproducible in newspapers, this dual ability was both useful and well-rewarded. Glackens, Sloane and Shinn all studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, as did Luks, although unlike his confreres, he then travelled in Europe for nearly a decade before returning to Philadelphia and also becoming a journalist.

In 1904 Henri moved to New York, teaching first at the New York School of Art, and from 1908 on his own, and he was soon followed by his coterie of artists. Henri himself was a fairly traditional painter, using the painterly styles of Franz Hals and Velazquez as models, and sticking to landscapes and portraits, which used the subdued brown-black-grey palette of such fin de siecle artists as Whistler, and the dashing brushstrokes and isolated figures of John Singer Sargent, yet without his sense of innate aristocracy. Instead Henri’s figures have an easy informality, a sense of camaraderie and “take-it-or-leave-it” commonality that makes them intrinsically — and charmingly — American.

“The Art Student (Miss Josephine Nivison)” from 1906 is perhaps his masterpiece, using his traditional monochrome palette to depict a non-traditionalist subject, a female painter. (Miss Nivison, in fact, did not become an artist, but married Edward Hopper and returned to the more traditional role for women in art, acting as her husband’s muse and model.) To be a female art- student then was to be emancipated, and Miss Nivison stares directly at the viewer, not aggressively, but nonetheless poised and confident. At the same time she is trapped by her black smock falling from her shoulders, pinning her arms and the hand holding that symbol of her work, her paintbrushes, down to her sides.

Henri’s students, however, were more interested in depicting the world around them. Their subject: New York. New York was then, as now, a city in a hurry, a city of contrasts, of change, of dynamism and movement, and this is what the “Ashcanners” set out to portray: the new city that was being constructed, the contrasts of wealth and poverty, the constant parade of people on the streets, buying and selling, entertaining and being entertained, the shops, the parks. Some of their subjects seemed to head towards social realism. John Sloan’s 1907 master-work, “Sixth Avenue and 30th Street, New York City”, depicts the Tenderloin district, an area of immigrants and poverty.

Sloan shows a woman who has quickly stepped out to fetch some beer (she has no hat, and is carrying a can of beer), being stared at, perhaps for the informality of her dress, by two laughing women, who according to some critics are prostitutes. The symbols of modernity even in poverty surround them — the elevated rail with the train scything through, the electric marquee above the theatre promising good times for all. Sloan’s quick, gestural brushstrokes match his colloquial scene. His work, said his fellow “Ashcanner”, George Bellows, was “big and rough and simple. Rough in colour and without polish. These pictures have a distinction as human documents, which I believe to be the rarest quality. ”

Others were happy to concentrate on the quieter moments of city life. William Glackens’ studio was in Greenwich Village, by Washington Square, and he painted and repainted the little park over a period of six years. In “Washington Square” (1910), the almost domestic qualities of the park are at the fore, as women and children walk along the slushy paths. But it is the formal elements of the painting that resonate: the stark central vertical, the splash of red in the sled carrying the eye back to the orange-coated child.

George Luks’ “Knitting for the Soldiers: High Bridge Park” (around 1918) is even more masterful: the dazzling fauve colours knitting the canvas together as the blues of the trees echo and are refracted in the skirts of the women, picking up pink tones as they shine out onto the snow. The daring yellow and red clothes of the woman on the left sharpen and intensify a scene that should be charming, but instead becomes a dynamic surface of flickering light.

Yet for all in the group, formal painterly elements were only part of what they were doing. Their experiences as reporters taught them to observe, not to comment — and nor were they preaching. As reporters they had had to create an image in words and pictures, of an event, very often a fire, an accident, a fight, and then present it in such a way that their middle-class newspaper readers would find acceptable.

They had learned this well in art too, after an initial set-back when the works of Luks, Shinn and Glackens were rejected by the National Academy of Design in 1907. Instead Henri put together a show of their works, together with five others — Sloan, Ernest Lawson, Arthur B. Davies and Maurice Prendergast — eight painters, hence they became known as “the Eight”, despite the fact that Lawson, Davies and Prendergast created art in quite different styles. Yet the rejection was only a minor glitch: Henri’s exhibition was well-received critically and popularly. By the time the Armory show of 1913 came to be planned, the first major exhibition of European modernism in the US, Sloan, Glackens, Luks and Bellows were all not only included, but were also on the organizing committees.

George Bellows (1882-1925) was, by now, the most popular of the “Ashcanners” (there will be a show entirely devoted to his work at London’s Royal Academy in 2013). Bellows joined the group late, starting to study with Henri at the New York School of Art in 1904. By 1908 one of his landscapes, “North River”, had won a prize from the National Academy of Design, and by 1909 he had been made an associate member of the Academy. His style was from early days pleasantly accessible, as he created a Turner-esque mixture of industrialization and nature. “The Palisades” (1909) shows the shores of the Hudson River in winter, all heavy impasto and glinting blue water. In the centre, a tiny train is only brought to the viewer’s attention by the giant white plume of smoke that billows up, knitting the snowy bank at the front with the black cliff across the water.

The year before, Bellows had begun what may be his masterpiece, a cycle of seven pictures showing the construction of Penn Station in New York. “Its subject,” wrote one art-historian, “might be said to be the dynamic imbalance of the energy of modern cities.” In fact, Bellows was turning to the early days of the Industrial Revolution, to the paintings of Wright of Derby, of Turner, and the apocalyptic works of John Martin (also ready for a revival of interest, with a show at London’s Tate Britain planned for the autumn of 2011). In “Excavation at Night” (1908), Martin’s metaphysical hellish infernos have been transformed into the purely physical, as a depiction of a building-site operated around the clock. Floodlights and firelight compete to illuminate construction rather than destruction through Bellow’s sharp and lively brushstrokes, what the art-historian John Wilmerding has called his “luscious, tumultuous elegant purity”.

After the Armory show, Bellows’ work continued to develop, while the other “Ashcanners” were for the most part content to stay the same, or even regress to earlier periods: Glackens, whose subject matter had always been somewhat more old fashioned than that of his colleagues, recreating the city parks, bars and cafes of the Impressionists, from 1905 moved ever closer to his 19th-century predecessors, following Renoir into still-lifes, a series of images of models indoors, and pretty landscapes. Luks physically returned to these painters. In high school he had known the patent-medicine tycoon Alfred C. Barnes, and in 1910 he encouraged Barnes to move on from collecting Barbizon paintings and develop his collection. Barnes immediately gave him $20,000 and told him to travel to Europe and bring him back whatever he thought was best. Luks returned with paintings by Cezanne, Renoir, Degas, van Gogh, Monet, Gauguin, Sisley, Pissarro, and Seurat. It may be this trip that lightened his own palette. This and the fact that he moved to north Manhattan in 1912 might be what also turned his interest in his own work away from the ethnic mix of the lower East Side which he had previously painted: now his subjects were the urban pastimes of the leisured classes.

Meanwhile, the modern art from Europe in the Armory show had had a serious effect of Bellows. “It seems to me,” he wrote, “that an artist must be a spectator of life; a reverential, enthusiastic, emotional spectator, and then the great dramas of human nature will surge through his mind.”

A few years before, he had started to spend his holidays on Monhegan Island, off the coast of Maine, where he rented a studio on the beach and watched the fishermen, the waves and the clouds. In 1913, right after the Armory show, he returned there, and “The Big Dory” was the result, perhaps his most radical image, a shockingly modern separation of the canvas into great lines of colours layered in horizontal slashes, with sharp little naive figures pushing in the opposite direction, giving the composition a sense of force and movement even as a series of stormclouds gather above in a confusion of almost lacquered stylization.

Soon Bellows developed even further, giving up his bright French brushstrokes for a blocky, smooth look, creating geometrical patterns, simplified forms, decorative surface and shapes: he was prefiguring the 1920s Art Deco style before it had truly been conceived.

Despite their name, therefore, none of the “Ashcanners” can be seen from our vantage point today as radical. None of them espoused change, and were content to record reality rather than promote artistic or societal revolution. But they were always satisfyingly their own people. They took traditional practices and used them to their own ends, creating scenes of vivid charm in sparklingly original voices.





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