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Ashcan School Collage

Ashcan School

Started: 1900

Ended: 1915

Ashcan School Timeline

Quotes

"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."
John Sloan
"Art my slats! Guts! Guts! Life! Life! I can paint with a shoestring dipped in pitch and lard."
George Luks
"Paint the flying spirit of the bird rather than its feathers."
Robert Henri
"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."
George Bellows
"The object isn't to make art, it's to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable."
Robert Henri
"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..."
George Bellows

KEY ARTISTS

Robert HenriRobert Henri
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William GlackensWilliam Glackens
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George LuksGeorge Luks
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George BellowsGeorge Bellows
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Everett ShinnEverett Shinn
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John SloanJohn Sloan
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"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."

Robert Henri Signature

Synopsis

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 seventeenth-century Spanish and Dutch art, and also with nineteenth-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

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.

Most Important Art

Ashcan School Famous Art

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.
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Ashcan School Artworks in Focus:

Beginnings

Ashcan School

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.

The Eight is Formed

In 1908, the core Ashcan School artists were joined by three other painters, Edwin Lawson, Maurice Prendergast, and Arthur B. Davies, to form The Eight. This new formation only exhibited as a group once, at the MacBeth Galleries in New York. What united this varied grouping of artistic rebels was their opposition to the conservative and very powerful National Academy of Design's system of juried exhibitions. Henri and many other artists believed that the National Academy was not supportive of more liberal, modern ideas and was indifferent to their art. Opposing competitions and the selections of conservative juries, Henri advocated a no-jury, no-prize, open policy for exhibitions that he felt nurtured a creative atmosphere. The Eight was putting power back into the hands of the artists who selected the works, and its members designed the installation themselves.

The Radical Exhibitions of New York City

Sloan and Henri worked together with Davies and painter Walk Kuhn to assemble the 1910 Exhibition of Independent Artists (1910), America's counterpart to the Salon des Refuses in France. In Paris, the then-unpopular Impressionists came together to exhibit their work, which had been rejected by the official Salon organized by the French government and was met with harsh critical reaction; this served as a model for Henri's group. The 1910 Exhibition was a second attempt, after the exhibition at The MacBeth Galleries, to pull the presentation of art into the power of the artists. There was no jury, no prize system, and the works were hung alphabetically to encourage a democratic viewing. Almost five hundred works by over one hundred artists were displayed. Over two thousand people attended the opening night, and thousands more visited the three-week-long exhibition. It was a media sensation, but reviews were mixed, and only few works sold.

The Eight and the Armory Show

The single independent exhibition that had, and still resounds, the greatest influence on American art was the 1913 Armory Show, which expanded the ideas of the 1910 affair to an international exhibition by displaying great numbers of European modernist works. The exhibition ran in three cities, where a total of 250 thousand people visited it. Arthur B. Davies and Walt Kuhn were the key organizers of the Armory Show; Henri was minimally involved. In January 1912, a committee of twenty-five artists formed the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, which was the nucleus of the Amory Show of the following year. Most of the involved artists were either allied with the National Academy of Design or with Henri. Davies, of the Eight, was allied with both groups and was at the forefront of the exhibition. Glackens produced a listing of over one thousand American works for inclusion. Davies felt that the American aesthetic provincialism must be challenged; the artist was well-versed in European modernism. Kuhn travelled to Europe gathering works, a total of over four hundred, beginning with the French Romantic period. The show's viewpoint was overwhelmingly French modernism, which would direct the course of American art for generations. Attendance at the Armory Show was initially disappointedly low until vitriolic reviews were published that captured the public's fancy. At this point, people came in great numbers; many came merely to mock and make sport of the works on view, especially Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase. After New York, which drew the greatest crowds and reviews, the massive exhibition traveled to Boston and Chicago; the Chicago Vice Commission investigated supposedly immoral material on view, which served only to boost attendance. Students at the Art Institute of Chicago hung Constantin Brancusi and Henri Matisse in effigy. The Armory Show's immediate impact was the proliferation of galleries in New York City. Previously, in 1911, Alfred Stieglitz had exhibited some works by modernists at his 291 Gallery, but this did not equal the number of works on view at the Armory Show. American artists were interested in and influenced by Synethetic Cubism, which was exhibited in great number at the Armory. An additional consequence of the Armory Show was the creation of private venues such as the Mable Dodge Luhan and the Arensberg salons that became fertile grounds for discussions of modernism.

Concepts and Styles

The Sidewalks of New York

Ashcan School

For such modernists as Lyonel Feininger and John Marin the excitement of bustling Manhattan was captured by looking up and depicting the magnificent skyscrapers that punctuated the skyline, such as the newly built Metropolitan Life and Woolworth buildings. But the Ashcan artists approached New York City at street level, tracking changing trends in immigration, advertisement, and popular entertainment. It has been said that Henri's group was less inclined to paint the city's new architecture than they were interested in the people who built such edifices. They emphasized the action on the street, peddlers, prostitutes, tourist spots, impoverished children, women strolling in newly built parks, and commuters, rather than the picturesque and distant panoramic views.

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Ashcan School Overview Continues

New York's Workers and Immigrants

As opposed to reformist photographers such as Jacob Riis, the Ashcan School artists were not interested in effecting social change but instead in capturing the vitality of urban life on many social levels. The newly arrived to America, such as the Southern Italians and Eastern-European Jews, held great fascination for native-born New Yorkers who travel on sightseeing tours of the Lower East Side to gasp and gape. Although the Ashcan School artists were not entirely immune to ethnic stereotyping, for example, the many hooked-nose Jews in Luks's Hester Street (1905), overall they sought to celebrate the city's diverse people and their ways of life in their canvases. The exception of an Ashcan artist that was concerned with social issues would be Sloan's graphics for The Masses, which were socialist in intent and sought to feed the workers' struggle against capitalism.

Spectacle and Dazzle: The Art of Entertainment

Mass production of consumer goods fostered leisure time for many New Yorkers who sought out the new spots and forms of entertainment that the city offered. The Ashcan School artists would follow suit with their canvases and sketchbooks. With supplies in hand, Henri and his followers would depict bloody boxing matches (Bellows), drinking establishments such as McSorley's (Sloan), and the picture shows and vaudeville performances (Shinn). But as still remains true today, the greatest theater in New York City is the theater of the streets, which commanded the Ashcan's greatest attention. Then, as now, New Yorkers liked not only to see, but also to be seen. Ashcan artists primarily dismissed the domestic sphere, which was the provenance of women, in order to engage with the rough streets and people of New York and with such social spheres as bars and gentlemen clubs, where women and minorities were prohibited.

Later Developments

Constituting the artistic avant-garde at this juncture, the Ashcan School, along with members of the Eight, played a crucial role in organizing the watershed Armory Show of 1913 that introduced American audiences to European modernism; it was this new and shocking European work that rapidly supplanted the Ashcan artists' claim of artistic radicalism. In contrast to the modern works of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and others, the Ashcan School, with their tight hold on realism, looked absolutely provincial in comparison and soon became overshadowed. The same investment in the city and modernity that made the Ashcan School so current ironically contributed to its demise. Cameras and news photographs took on the task of reportage which had been the purview of the painters. The increase in photography, between the years 1910 and 1920, may have encouraged the artists to depart from their earlier styles and subject matter. Individually, each artist renounced urban subjects of daily life for stylistic experimentation and "pure art," meaning less socially charged art. By 1915, Henri adopted alternate color theories, resulting in the garish look of his late portraits. Glackens turned to Impressionism, painting such studio-based subjects as nudes and still-lifes. Bellows left New York City behind and concentrated on seascapes and landscapes. During the 1920s, Sloan was based primarily in New Mexico, where he documented the lives and faces of the indigenous Americans. Each took on numerous students, several of whom formed the Fourteenth Street School in the 1920s. The influence of the Ashcan School's focus on urbanism, immigrants, and impoverished Americans resonates with the Social Realism movement of the 1930s and such artists as Ben Shahn and Edward Hopper.


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Useful Resources on Ashcan School

Books

Websites

Articles

Videos

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
Painters of the Ashcan School: The Immortal Eight Recomended resource

By Bennard B. Perlman

Picturing the City: Urban Vision and the Ashcan School

By Rebecca Zurier

Life's Pleasures: The Ashcan Artists' Brush with Leisure, 1895-1925

By James Tottis, Valerie Ann Leeds, Vincent Digirolamo, Marianne Doezema, and Suzanne Smeaton

The Eight and American Modernisms Recomended resource

By Elizabeth Kennedy

More Interesting Books about Ashcan School
Urban Studies

By Hilarie M. Sheets
ARTnews Magazine
June 12, 2012

Ashcan Views of New Yorkers, Warts, High Spirits and All Recomended resource

By Ken Johnson
The New York Times
December 28, 2007

Ashcan Kids

By Grace Glueck
The New York Times
December 25, 1998

Art of the Ashcan and Other Schools

By Suzanne Slesin
The New York Times
July 26, 1990

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