Title: The epic of the city.
Subject(s): ASHCAN school of art; METROPOLITAN Lives (Exhibition)
Source: Time, 2/19/96, Vol. 147 Issue 8, p62, 2p, 2c
Author(s): Hughes, Robert
Abstract: Profiles the Ashcan School of American painting. The exhibition `Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and Their New York,' at the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C.; Background of the movement; Members including Robert Henri, John Sloan, George Luks and Everett Shinn; The Ashcan School as the first art of urban America.
AN: 9602137653
ISSN: 0040-781X
Full Text Word Count: 1308
Database:  Academic Search Elite
Notes: Check Periodical list for Ohlone Library holdings.
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UNTIL ABOUT 1880, THE ACCEPTed epic subject of American painting was the Western frontier. By 1900 this had slid into nostalgia; it was no longer in synch with social reality. Most Americans lived in cities, and the myth of the West was just that: a myth, however durable. The real frontier was urban--a place of hitherto unimagined overcrowding, of cultural collision enforced by huge-scale immigration, of rapid change, where class ground against class like the imperfect rollers of a giant machine. Its epitome was New York City--Bagdad-on-the-Subway, as the writer O. Henry called it--a city in convulsive and continuous transition, bursting at the seams with high spirits, misery and spectacle. 

The painters who reported on it were nicknamed the Ashcan School by a critic in the 1930s, and the label has stuck. They were Robert Henri, John Sloan, George Luks, Everett Shinn, William Glackens and George Bellows, and among them they created the first art of urban America. The current show at the National Museum of American Art in Washington, "Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and Their New York," is a fine introduction to their work. 

The group had formed around Henri in Philadelphia. Henri's original family name was Cozad--he was a very distant relation of Mary Cassatt--but his father, a riverboat gambler and property shark, had shot a man in Nebraska and had moved East and changed his name to escape the judge and jury. Young Henri (pronounced Hen-rye) became an artist through study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, which in the 1880s was still what its chief teacher, the great realist Thomas Eakins, had made it: the best place in America to learn direct, factual realist painting, based on incessant drawing of the naked body. 

Henri made a pilgrimage to Paris in 1888 and absorbed a fairly academic style of Impressionism during three years of study there. But it was his second trip to Paris in the mid-1890s that confirmed his direction as an artist. Dissatisfied with Impressionism as an art of insubstantial surfaces, he immersed himself in dark tonal painting, based on Manet and Frans Hals. He wanted the image to be not a shimmer of light but a lump in the mind, given urgency by slashing brushstrokes and depth by strong contrast. He liked Hals' vulgarity and reflected it in his portraits, one of the most spectacular of which is in this show--Salome, 1909, a portrait of a dancer known as Mademoiselle Voclezca. Her long leg, thrust out with strutting sexual arrogance and glinting through the overbrushed black veil, had more oomph than a thousand of the virginal Muses and personifications of Columbia painted by academics like Kenyon Cox. 

In Philadelphia, Henri's worldly, rebellious, effusive nature made him a magnet to younger artists, most of whom worked as illustrators for the Philadelphia press--Sloan, Glackens, Shinn and Luks. They drank together, had long poker sessions, bellowed poetry at one another and argued late into the night. Sloan recalled 50 years later that Henri was "a catalyst, an enthusiast ... with the pioneer's contempt for cant and aestheticism." Moreover, he was genuinely interested in the young, and was to inspire several generations of students--not only his younger contemporaries like Sloan and Bellows, but Edward Hopper and Stuart Davis, the Dadaist Man Ray and, strange to say, Leon Trotsky, who briefly studied art at the Ferrer School in New York when Henri was teaching there. 

By 1904, Henri and the rest had moved to New York, where an unparalleled field of subjects for painter-journalists awaited them. The artist, they all believed, must connect to the harsh facts of his society, especially in the city; then his art would draw life and staying power from its common subject matter. "His vest is slightly spotted; he is real," said Sloan approvingly of a visiting Irish painter, J.B. Yeats, father of the poet. Luks boasted that he could paint with a shoestring dipped in lard and tar. The artist, smearing oily gunk on a cloth with bristles, is immersed in mess--a manual worker of images. This makes him one with the city and its people. For poetic spirit, he should emulate Walt Whitman, learning to embrace the body of the city and contain multitudes, dirt and all. The masculine realism of Winslow Homer inspired all the Ashcan artists--they, especially Henri and Bellows, wanted to be Homers of the city. 

The most talented painters among them were Henri, Bellows and Sloan. Glackens turned into a late-blooming Impressionist, and Shinn was essentially an illustrator, while Luks' coarse, rhetorical talent produced a lot of formulaically macho painting leavened only by a few significant works, such as The Wrestlers, 1905. 

Bellows died in 1925, at only 43, and all his best paintings were finished by 1913, the year of the Armory Show. They were the works of a fast-eyed, brilliantly responsive artist whose style looked modern, and in some respects was modern, without offending American conservatives. Bellows' reputation as a radical had more to do with his lowlife subjects and journalistic speed than with any avant-gardeness in the work. His political ideas, like those of Sloan and Henri, were in some general way socialist-anarchist without being particularly militant. He leaned toward a pastoral, unthreatening vision of the disorganized poor, spiced with humor, as in his portraits of tough Irish street urchins or the famous Forty-Two Kids, 1909--not, alas, in this show--depicting a swarm of knobby pale boys horsing around and diving into the Hudson from a broken-down pier. 

He had a terrific nose for a story. One of the biggest in New York circa 1909 was illicit prizefighting, and Bellows made intensely vivid and memorable images of it. Ashcan painting, in its description of the Darwinian world of fists evoked by American realist writers like Frank Norris and Jack London, lagged behind literature by 10 years or more, but its attachment to images of clash and struggle aligned it squarely with the American cultural ideology of the day--Theodore Roosevelt's praise of the strenuous life. 

The most lyrical--but also the most politically acerbic--of the Ashcan artists was Sloan. A fervent admirer of the social vision of French lithographers, especially Gavarni and Daumier, he kept his satire for the illustrations he did for The Masses and other left-wing magazines. His painted world was more amiable, with its fleshy, rosy girls in dance halls or promenading in Washington Square Park--a Brooklyn Fragonard whispering to a Hester Street Renoir. Sloan saw his people as part of a larger totality, the carnal and cozy body of the city itself, where even the searchlight on top of Madison Square Garden, he wrote, "was scratching the belly of the sky and tickling the building." He liked the roaring dynamism of the El, and in Election Night, 1907, he combined it with a flushed, disorderly crowd in a sort of modern kermis. 

Sloan was, as Willem de Kooning would say of himself many years later, a slipping glimpser, with a strong sense of the fleeting moment in which people are caught unawares--arguments on the fire escape, a woman pegging out the wash, lovers furtively embracing on the tenement roof. And though his vision was less flamboyant than Henri's or Bellows', he clearly had a deep effect on younger painters like Reginald Marsh and Hopper. His moments of voyeuristic detachment were amplified in Hopper's glimpses of disconnected urban souls seen through windows. One wants to see more of Sloan; when will some American museum give him the retrospective he deserves? 



Top of Page
Robert Henri 1865-1929 
Snow in New York 1902 
32 x 25 3/4 in
The Ashcan School and "The Eight"
  • Everett Shin, 
  • Robert Henri, 
  • William Glackens, 
  • John Sloan, 
  • George Bellows,
  • Ernest Lawson 
  • Maurice Prendergart.

The Spielers by George Luks.

Bellows, George Cliff Dwellers 1913
Oil on canvas 40 1/4 x 42 1/8 in. (102.2 x 107 cm)
Los Angeles County Museum of Art


John Sloan Six O'Clock Winter 1912

Daumier, Honore Third Class Carriage
Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada

Subway Rush Hour
Langston Hughes

breath and smell
so close
black and white
so near
no room for fear



John Sloan Hairdresserís Window  1907
CAILLEBOTTE,Gustave 1848-94 
Paris, A Rainy Day,1876-77 o/c  Chicago,A.I


Sloan, John McSorley's Bar 1912
Oil on canvas 26 x 32 in. (66 x 81.3 cm)
Detroit Institute of Arts

Edouard Manet. A Bar at the Folies-Bergère.
1882. Oil on canvas. 37"x51" 
Courtauld Institute Galleries, London, UK.



William Glackens
Hammersteins Roof Garden 1901

Cassatt, Mary. At the Opera.
1880. Oil on canvas. 32 x 26 in. 

Boston: Museum of Fine Arts.


Bellows, George
Stag at Sharkey's
Oil on canvas
36 1/4 x 48 1/4 in. (92.1 x 122.6 cm)
The Cleveland Museum of Art

Thomas Eakins Between Rounds 1899
Oil on canvas 50.125 x 38.25
in Philadelphia Museum of Art

Excerpted from:
PAINTINGS of George Bellows, The (Exhibition)
 Source: Time, 8/3/92, Vol. 140 Issue 5, p68, 2p, 1c
 Author(s): Hughes, Robert
ENERGETIC, FULL OF JUICE, BRILliant m flashes but in the long haul a most uneven talent, George Bellows died of appendicitis in 1925 at the age of 42 with a reputation among-Americans that was not going to survive. 

He appealed to "sound" taste in his day--and then got flattened from behind by the avant-garde as it developed after the 1913 Armory Show, which he had helped organize: road kill, as it were, on art history's Route 66. He didn't quite have the empirical genius of the older Winslow Homer, to whom his early work strongly relates; nor did he quite possess the visionary force of Marsden Hartley, with whom he shared a love of romantic, elemental images--sea, rock, the buffeting air of Maine. 

What he did have (but began to lose in his early 30s) was an abundant response to the physical world, a libidinous sense of fat-nuanced paint, sure tonal structure and a narrative passion for the density of life in New York City. 

If these attributes couldn't turn him into a major modernist, they certainly make him an artist worth revisiting. Hence the retrospective of paintings jointly organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, which runs at the Whitney Museum in New York City until the end of August. 

Bellows studied at the New York School of Art under Robert Henri, the American realist disciple of Frans Hals and Edward Manet. "My life begins at this point," he said of his apprenticeship to Henri. He soon developed a tough, pragmatic repertoire based on realist drawing and tonal composition. He was by far the most gifted younger member of the Ashcan School, a loose group that included John Sloan, George Luks and William Glackens. Not one of them ever painted an ash can, but they did believe, in a general way, that the artist should work from life as it was lived in the big dirty city and stay away from highfalutin symbolism. 

Their gods were Manet, Daumier, Goya and Hals; among Americans, Homer and Eakins. None were more direct than Bellows, who in the peak years of his youth became the entranced recorder of New York, the "real" city of tough mud larking kids, of crowded tenements and teeming icy streets, of big bridges and sudden breaks in the wall of buildings that revealed tugboats and a dragging tide. 

Bellows' most powerful image of the city as compressor of violence was the boxing ring. Prize fighting was made illegal in New York State in 1900. But that did not dispose of the semi-clandestine "club nights," with battling pugs drawn from the hard, desperate edge of Irish, Polish, Italian and Jewish street gangs--kids who would pound each other to hash for a purse under the eyes of a flushed, yelling house. The sport was barely a notch up from the bareknuckle slugging of Georgian England. 

Starting in 1907, Bellows made a small series of boxing pictures, of which the most gripping is Stag at Sharkey's (1909), an image of orgiastic energy, the boxers' faces reduced to speed blurs of bloody paint, the bodies starkly gleaming under the carbide lights, locked m a triangle, the strain of muscles so assimilated into the physical life of the paint strokes that the pigment runs over their contours. Bellows' contemporaries found such images "Hogarthian," but the closer ancestor of Stag at Sharkey's is late Goya. In particular the frieze of spectators' heads, yelling, gaping, sly, stupefied, brings to mind the faces in Goya's Witches' Sabbath or his Pilgrimage to the Miraculous Fountain of San Isidro. 
PAINTINGS of George Bellows, The (Exhibition)