The Ashcan School was a movement which was integral and in a way 1 inevitable with the infancy of the twentieth century. This movement in art was brought about by a handful of artists who converged on New York City around the turn of the century.2 The major Ashcan artists who will be discussed later are Robert Henry ( 1865- 1929), George Luks (1866- 1933), Everett Shinn (1876- 1953), George Bellows (1882- 1925), John Sloan (1871- 1951), and William Glackens ( 1870- 1938).3 These were the major members of the Ashcan School. This is a group of artists who are credited with documenting the ordinary life on a human level in New York City during this incredible time of transformation. Because of these artists we have a picture of New York not based on the monuments or buildings but based on the interaction and the coexistence of the people who shaped the society which was emerging.
The island of Manhattan was consolidated into the greater New York City in 1898. Because of this the city was transformed from a nineteenth century seaport with cobblestone streets into a twentieth century metropolis of skyscrapers and subways. The artists of the Ashcan movement saw this changing society in human terms. They saw this in a light which depicted the interaction of so many different cultures which were being thrust together. They documented these changes on a level which the ordinary person could understand. Because of the Ashcan School we have a picture of society which one really cannot understand amidst the overpowering spectacle of overpowering buildings and increasing technology.4
To understand the Ashcan movement it is necessary to look more closely at some of the major artists who were involved. George Bellows moved to New York in 1904 after he dropped out of Ohio State University following his junior year. Once in New York he enrolled in classes at The New York School of Art. He quickly became Robert Henri’s star pupil and valued friend. Bellows was fascinated by New York City. He attempted to capture in his art the social change which he noticed in the city. By the time he was twenty four his art had the attention of the cities leading critics, and his work was shown regularly at exhibitions at the national academy of design. Bellows became the youngest artist ever to elected an associate of the National Academy of Design in 1909.
Robert Henri got his art training from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and from the Ecole des Beaux which is in Paris.5 He said that in his own work he tried to portray ” this thing that I call dignity in a human being”. This was whether he was painting the elegant, wealthy New York socialites or the Irish children or the Spanish Gypsies which he painted abroad. Henri believed that art should embody the spirit of its own time. He attempted to convince his pupils to go into the streets and capture the spontaneity and character of the people that he saw.
George Luks was an editorial cartoonist. He also created ” The Yellow Kid” which was a widely read comic strip published in the New York World.6 It was around 1900 when he decided to leave newspaper work in order to paint full time. He decided to focus on New York’s Lower East Side which consisted primarily of Jewish and Italian neighborhoods. He made a complete turnaround in his approach to art, leaving behind the wit and satire of the cartoon in order to focus on portraying the streets and people of this densely populated neighborhood with compassion and with understanding.
Compared with his Ashcan contemporaries, John Sloan was a latecomer to the movement of urban realism. Until 1903 he had made the art nuveau styled posters and puzzle designs which were popular in the Philadelphia press.7 It was in that year that the paper switched to photography which put most of the staff artists out of work. William Glackens asked him to illustrate the novels of Paul de Koch. It was at this point that Sloan changed to a style which gave full range to his abilities and his insights on society. His change to urban realism was complete by 1904. At this point he began painting the area around his apartment in Chelsea. This was a working class Irish neighborhood which was adjacent to the tenderloin district containing bars and brothels.8
Everett Shinn moved to New York in 1897 at which time he went to work for the New York World. He began receiving commissions for magazine illustrations and by 1900 was considered among the countries most promising young illustrators. Shinn had his first solo exhibition in 1900 at the Boussod, Valadon gallery. This show featured pastel drawings of life in the cities tenement districts and portraits of several theater personalities.9 This show was a financial and a critical success for Shinn and launched his career. Over the next five years his work was featured in four different New York Galleries.
After returning from a trip to Europe with Robert Henri in 1895 and 1896 William Glackens took a job with the New York World. He soon made the transition into magazine work. It was in this setting that his abilities really began to be recognized and he began to win commissions to illustrate human interest stories as well as tales of New York life. Glackens became adept at capturing the interaction of New Yorkers at leisure. He did this by painting scenes in Washington Square which was near his studio, and scenes in other public places frequented by the cities population.10
The years of the Ashcan School coincided with the progressive era. This was a time when journalists and reformers brought issues of wealth and poverty to the forefront of public attention. The art work of the Ashcan school reflected these concerns. During this time Robert Henri regularly attended meetings at the home of Emma Goldman, a reputed anarchist, and John Sloan became a candidate for office on the socialist party ticket. Despite these political affiliations, though, the artists of the Ashcan School in general attempted to avoid propagandizing their work. John Sloan went so far as to resign as art editor of The Masses, a radical magazine of the time, in protest of the overpoliticized captions which were being added to drawings featured in the magazine.11
Perceptions of immigrant life had begun to transform by the time the Ashcan artists arrived in New York City. The immigrant population up until this time had been viewed as alarming and something to be feared, almost as a foreign city within our own city. However, within the early years of the twentieth century many people reporting on New York life, including the Ashcan artists tended to view the immigrant population as a source of vitality and diversity through which the city greatly benefited. The Ashcan artists in particular were interested more in the humanity of the Lower East Side rather than its strangeness and peculiarity.12 They tended to explore the contrast between the different cultures and the ways of the old world and the ways of the new one being built around them.
The artists of the Ashcan school savored the experience of going to public places to get the majority of the material for their art. To them this was the essence of life in New York City. How people interacted with each other, how they reacted to the different cultures and dealt with the conflicts and differences that would arise was excellent subject matter for their form of art. This is really what interested them and where they felt that the vitality of the city spawned from.
The Ashcan artists were among the first of the American artists to depict the world of entertainment. Some of their pieces included portrayals of amateur night at vaudeville theater, people dining out , crowds at the beach and street entertainers in immigrant neighborhoods. Through this, however, they emphasized the human side of the event, such as the interplay between the performer and the audience. These artists tended to key in on the social relations of people in a world where ideas of restraint and tolerance were constantly changing.
At this point of time during the opening years of the twentieth century another important change was taking place in the United States. This was the changing roles of the sexes in these years of fluid change. The suffrage movement was gaining momentum at this time. By 1910 women had the right to vote in four western states.13 Women had also formed labor unions specifically to deal with issues concerning women in the workplace. There became a large population of single women who supported themselves as teachers, office clerks, sales people and as service workers. The labor of these women was invaluable to New York’s garment industry. Working women were also a principle market for the low cost, ready to wear fashions widely available for the first time.
This change in women’s roles led to a change in men’s roles in society as well. The artists of the Ashcan movement were fascinated by this transition in the roles of the sexes. While many people met these changes with fear and a confrontational attitude, the Ashcan artists seemed content to record the transition solely from a standpoint of social interaction.
The artists of the Ashcan School introduce us to an aspect of society in the city which had been up until this point ignored or at the very least overshadowed by the dominating changes which New York was visibly undergoing. This was the aspect of change at the human level of cultural interaction and survival. These artists found their subject matter in the most basic level of society, the level of human existence, and as it turned out people were hungry for this type of art. It was encouraging to see people surviving amidst all of the controversy and change. Maybe that is why this art has survived as long as it has.