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Labelled as vulgar by the critics, the Ashcan school of painters was a flourishing and original group whose inspiration was drawn from New York street scenes and the seamier side of city life.
In the early years of the 20th century, American painting finally emerged from the shadow of European art and began to assert its own identity. Leading these advances was a group of social realist painters who came to be known as the Ashcan school.
The leader of this influential group was the painter and teacher Robert Henri. Born Robert Henry Cozad, Henri changed his name after his family was forced to flee Cincinnati following his father's involvement in a shooting incident. Henri's own work came firmly within the European orbit, his portraits bearing a close resemblance to those of Manet. However, Henri's true importance lay in the direction that his teaching gave to the realist movement. One commentator described him as a 'silver-tongued Pied Piper'.
Henri travelled to Europe on several occasions in the 1880s and 1890s. In 1888, he was in Paris, studying under the academic painter, Adolphe Bouguereau and, in 1895, he visited Holland with William Glackens. Like Henri, Glackens' link with the Ashcan school was tempered by his obvious fondness for European art and his canvases reveal a particular liking for the work of Renoir.
On his return to the States, Henri settled in Philadelphia and, from 1892-95, he taught at the Women's School of Design. His own studio became a popular meeting place for artists and it was during this period that the future members of the Ashcan school first came together. Many of these artists worked initially as illustrators on newspapers. George Luks, Everett Shinn, John Sloan and William Glackens all began their careers this way, before Henri persuaded them to take up painting and translate the immediacy and topicality of their journalistic work into a vigorous new form of American art.
Henri preached a positive brand of liberal humanism, stressing his belief in progress, justice and the common bonds of humanity. He called upon artists to portray modern American life, not with the superficial prettiness that was popular in the academies, but with the social awareness of a Goya or a Daumier. 'Be willing to paint a picture that does not look like a picture,' was his maxim.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the Philadelphia realist painters migrated to New York, where the overcrowded suburbs gave an increasingly urban slant to their pictures. Cinema audiences and street scenes in the slums were typical subjects, while bars like McSorleys provided a virtual replica of night life in the Latin Quarter of Paris.
In New York, however, they also came up against the opposition of the National Academy of Design. This imposing body had been founded in 1826 and was, in its early days, an important sponsor of native American art. By the time that Impressionism and Realism made their appearance, however, it had become extremely conservative. In 1907, Luks, Glackens and Shinn were among the artists who had their works rejected for its annual show. Henri, who was one of the selection committee on this occasion, withdrew his own entries in protest and set about organizing an independent exhibition.
The result was a show by 'the Eight', which took place in February 1908 at the Macbeth Galleries, where Henri had previously held a one-man exhibition. 'The Eight' were not a cohesive group and this was to be the only time they exhibited together. Nonetheless, the vitality and modernity of the paintings on display made this a landmark of American art and a rallying point for supporters of the avant-garde. The critics, however, were 'less enthusiastic. 'Vulgarity smites one in the face at this exhibition,' complained one correspondent, and the feeling that certain artists were glorying in the noise and the squalor of city E life earned them the tag of 'the Ashcan school'.
Only five of 'the Eight' were attached to the Ashcan group Henri, Luks, Shinn, Sloan and Glackens. Of these, probably the artist who best typified its spirit was John Sloan, who is sometimes known as 'the American Hogarth'. Sloan was a committed socialist and was later a co-founder of The Masses, a political journal to which Henri, Luks and Bellows all contributed E illustrations. His diaries show how closely he based his paintings on the scenes and incidents that he witnessed in the city streets. Hopper was a fervent admirer of his work and in an article of 1927, entitled 'John Sloan and the Philadelphians', he singled out the former's Night Windows for particular praise. Then, a year later, he produced his own version, using the same voyeuristic theme of a woman glimpsed through an open window.
Where Sloan viewed the life of the poor with sympathy and as a forum for political struggle, George Luks found the slums a source of vigour, excitement and modernity. Luks, himself, was a flamboyant and brash character and sought to project this image in a series of extravagant fabrications about his early career. His claims to have earned a living as a coal miner and as a fighter called 'Chicago Whitey' and 'the Harlem Spider' are probably apocryphal, but it is true that he was almost killed by a firing squad when, as a reporter, he was sent to cover the Spanish-American war in Cuba. Luks' painting shows a similar sense of adventure, with a loose handling and brushwork that reveals a clear debt to Frans Hals. His style is best exemplified by his depiction of wrestlers.
Fighting scenes were also popular with George Bellows, another painter associated with the Ashcan school. Bellows did not exhibit with 'the Eight', but his art contained many of the aggressively American qualities that typified the spirit of the group. He never went abroad and thus found it easier than his colleagues to ward off European influences. In addition, he was a keen sportsman and seemed to symbolize the Ashcan ideal of the all-American, red-blooded male.
In his youth, he played semi-pro baseball at Columbus, Ohio, and was invited to join the Cincinnati Reds. Bellows chose art as a career instead, although his continuing interest in sport is evident from his paintings. He depicted baseball, polo and tennis scenes, but is most famous for six stirring pictures of boxing matches.
Prize-fighting was illegal in New York at this time, and bouts were staged in private athletic clubs, with both the spectators and the fighters taking out temporary membership. Bellows' studio was almost opposite Sharkey's Club in Broadway, and this venue provided a rich source of material for him. His brutal ringside views are remarkable both for the blurred, mask-like faces of the audience and for their sheer presence which, in the absence of photographic reporting, must have seemed all the more striking. Bellows emphasised his interest in the physicality of such scenes. 'Who cares what a prize-fighter looks like?' he commented, 'its muscles that count.
Bellows had considerable conventional success, becoming the youngest Associate of the National Academy in 1909. For his colleagues, however, it was more important to set an alternative standard to these academic plaudits. In 1910, Henri organized the Exhibition of Independent Artists; it was the first American show to have no jury and no prizes, and where each painter paid for the space he used.
Three years later, modern art made its decisive breakthrough in America at the Armory Show. Ironically, the impact of the European contributions at this exhibition made the work of the urban realists seem old-fashioned and heralded their decline. It required the emergence of Hopper, Henri's pupil, to underline the true achievements of the Ashcan school.
Writer – Marshall Cavendish