Artworks and Artists of Ashcan School
Portrait of Willie Gee (1904)
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.
Oil on canvas - Newark Museum of Art, Newark, NJ
At Mouquin's (1905)
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.
Oil on canvas - Art Institute of Chicago
Hester Street (1905)
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.
Oil on canvas - The Brooklyn Museum of Art
Forty-Two Kids (1907)
Forty-two boys or "kids" swim in the dirty waters of New York City's East River to escape the stifling heat of ill-ventilated tenement apartments. Under the dark cover of night at the city's edge, the boys use a modified dog paddle as their stroke to push floating garbage out of their way. George Bellows's brushy, rough application of oil paint marked the boys' social class onto their bodies, which are nude and scrawny. The term "kid" was popularized by the cartoon Hogan's Alley, whose protagonist was "The Yellow Kid," a slum-dwelling hooligan.
Bellows's depiction of city boys diving off splintered piers and reveling in their freedom, coupled with his bravura, painterly style appalled several New York art critics. One caustically appraised Bellows's canvas, asserting that "most of the boys look more like maggots than humans." While many similarly derisive words denigrated poor immigrants, the boys themselves are clearly enjoying their escape from society's scrutiny. Bellows's work typifies the Ashcan School artists' interest in everyday subject matter, the urban poor, and the overall vitality of life.
Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Footlight Flirtation (1912)
New York, the modern city, was home to many new and spectacular forms of and venues for entertainment. Some were outdoors such as Coney Island's fantastical Dreamland and its illuminated Luna Park, while others were indoors, such as movie theaters and restaurants. Shinn seized on the spectacle of the theater and vaudeville as his signature subjects, including this canvas, which shows the influence of the French Impressionists, in particular Edgar Degas's ballet and opera scenes of Paris. Shinn places us, his viewing audience, in the second row of seats just behind three women topped off with fancy hats. This device of locating his own viewers within the painting's setting is indebted to both Degas and Mary Cassatt. In vaudeville, attending audiences were attracted by the promise of a fleeting interaction with the stage performers. The coquettish young lady on stage gazes directly into the eyes of an audience member as she daringly lifts her skirt to reveal her shapely legs, which was quite daring for its time!
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
Both Members of this Club (1909)
Bellows, known for his manly swagger and bravado, played semipro baseball before relocating to New York City to study painting with Robert Henri. A late-comer to the satellite of artists surrounding Henri, Bellows is frequently considered part of the Ashcan School due to his technique and subject matter. Here, Bellows has packed so much energy and life into this boxing match that one can almost experience viscerally the power of a gloved fist upon bloodied flesh. The vibrancy of color application and fluid brushwork recall the influence of the 17th-century Dutch painter Franz Hals, whom Bellows greatly admired. Bellows affords us a ring-side view as we are situated as part of the gathered audience at this boxing match. While the name of the white boxer is unknown, the African-American boxer is Joe Gans, who would be the champion for eight years. Public boxing was illegal at sporting clubs due to its crass brutality, but memberships were granted for the duration of the boxers' bout in order to circumvent these restrictions. Hence the name of this work. Boxing was also highly racially charged as white America looked for its "Great White Hope" to conquer champion African-American Jack Johnson, the heavy weight champ. Bellows illuminates and distorts the faces of the spectators who surround the ring, openly mocking their elite status.
Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Art
McSorley's Bar (1912)
John Sloan's canvas McSorley's Bar is his visual commentary on male bonding, prohibition, drinking, and the working class. It typifies the Ashcan School's painterly style, depiction of the working class and immigrant communities (here, the Irish Americans), urban subject matter, and the Ashcan School's promotion of painting as a masculine enterprise. Sloan locates us, his audience, at tables just across from the bar depicted at center here in McSorley's Ale House established in 1854 and still operating today. Maintained as a male-only pub well into the late-20th century, Sloan invites all viewers into this gendered, public drinking spot. Sloan informally arranges the men both standing and working at the bar in a frieze-like formation as the light enters from the right to illuminate their faces and gestures. There is a roughness to how Sloan, a prominent illustrator, has applied the oil paint, which evokes the authenticity of the scene.
Oil on canvas - Detroit Institute of Art
Cover: The Masses (1914)
John Sloan was an active socialist and began to work for The Masses, a magazine published in bohemian Greenwich Village, soon after it was founded in 1911. Sloan contributed illustrations which were powerfully drawn, politically radical, and forthright in their socialist critique of inequality. There is a marked distinction between Sloan's assertion of his politics in his graphic works and how he approached his paintings as acts of social observation, but without a revolutionary agenda. As the artist stated, "While I am a Socialist, I never allowed social propaganda into my paintings."
Sloan's cover illustration here commemorates the Ludlow Massacre, when Colorado National Guard troops and Colorado Fuel & Iron Company camp guards attacked striking miners and their families in Ludlow, Colorado, in April 1914. Here, a roughly drawn miner shoots back at the troops who have murdered his family. This same image served as the cover of the International Socialist Review. In contrast to his oil paintings, which celebrated working class life without a political agenda, here, Sloan directly addresses, perhaps encourages, the class struggle. As surely as the miner points his gun at John D. Rockefeller's henchmen and the National Guard, the artist places blame on such robber barons as Rockefeller for the deaths of the honest workers and their families.
Snow Scene (57th Street) (1902)
Robert Henri does not romanticize the falling of snow on a busy metropolis such as Manhattan. As he pictures the well-traversed cityscape, the snow is grey and muddy with dirt while people huddle together as they plunge forward into the biting cold wind. In the hands of the American Impressionists, the group of moderns prior to the Ashcan School, the subject of snow blanketing the city would have concentrated on pastels, the reflective qualities of light, and air upon snow as it glistens. Henri also mixes old New York, through the horse drawn carriage at center, with modern technology such as the elevated train, which runs overhead.
Oil on canvas - Yale University Art Gallery