Ashcan School

About Ashcan School

Robert Henri, Snow in New York, 1902, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Henri, Robert

What was the Ashcan School?

“There is only one reason for art in America,” said Robert Henri, one of the leading figures of the Ashcan School, “and that is that the people of America learn the means of expressing themselves in their own time and their own land.” Taking their painterly cues from seventeenth- to nineteenth-century European realism and their subject matter from immigrant and working-class life in 1900s New York, the Ashcan School set themselves apart from Impressionists, academics, and others within the “Genteel Tradition” that dominated the visual arts.

What are the characteristics of the Ashcan School?

The masterpieces of this movement powerfully evoke the exigency and dynamism of modern urban life with tenebrous tones and gritty, gestural brushwork. Titles like Men of the Docks; Italo-American Celebration, Washington Square; McSorley's Bar; The Butcher Cart; and The Wrestlers are representative of their scope.

George Bellows, Men on the Docks, 1912

The Ashcan School and The Eight

In 1908, Robert Henri organized a landmark show entitled The Eight at the Macbeth Galleries in New York. The four other Ashcan founders participated, along with three other painters working in more lyrical styles: the Canadian-born Maurice Prendergast and Ernest Lawson, and fellow New Yorker Arthur Bowen Davies.

William James Glackens, SAILING BOATS, PARIS, circa 1895. Sold for $92,500 in 2010.

The show was a pointed protest against the conservative exhibition policies of the National Academy of Design and advocate for art of greater diversity, ambition and contemporary relevance. After it closed in New York, John Sloan arranged for the show to tour several more American cities. Viewers were divided as to whether these works were daring and vital or slapdash and gloomy, but attendance was high and urban realism was indelibly established as a major current in American art.

Everett Shinn, BASTILLE DAY, 14TH OF JULY, PARIS, 1930. Sold for $56,250.

Impact and Legacy of the Ashcan School

The Ashcan School represented the most progressive artistic trend in the United States in the decade preceding the Armory Show in 1913. After the New York audience's exposure to Duchamp's Cubist-Futurist Nude Descending a Staircase and other such truly startling pictorial innovations, the representational scenes of the Ashcan School began to look staid by comparison. However, a young generation of artists were inspired by the Ashcan artists' devotion to the portrayal of the real lives of working people. Reginald Marsh, Doris Lee, Raphael Soyer, Ben Shahn and Horace Pippin are among the American painters who took up that mantle in the years following the Great Crash, while Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco led the Mexican muralist movement. Social realism remains a vibrant strain of American art today, with exponents including Richard Lewer, Juanito Torres and Mike Alewitz.

The work of the original Ashcan artists is well represented in such institutional collections as the Brooklyn Museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

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Timeline & History

  • 1886
    Robert Henri begins his studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

    (left) Photograph of Robert Henri, 1897
  • 1892
    Henri begins to mentor Glackens, Luks, Shinn, and Sloan; calling themselves The Charcoal Club, their gatherings in Philadelphia featured life drawing and lively discussions of Emerson and Whitman

    (left) Ashcan School artists and friends at John French Sloan's Philadelphia Studio, 1898
  • 1904
    Having all moved to New York, the Ashcan artists exhibit at a group show at the National Arts Club

    (left) George Benjamin Luks, Sand Hole, Bronx, 1906
  • 1905
    Glackens paints his famous New York scene, Central Park in Winter, showing his talent for agile characterization

    (left) William Glackens, Central Park in Winter, 1905
  • 1908
    The group known as The Eight – the five founding Ashcan painters and three others – mount an exhibit that will tour several American cities

    (left) George Bellows, Pennsylvania Station Excavation, 1907-08
  • 1909
    Bellows captures a dramatic boxing match in Both Members of this Club

    (left) George Bellows, Both Members of This Club, 1909
  • 1912
    Sloan becomes art editor of The Masses, a graphically groundbreaking monthly magazine of socialist politics and cultural criticism

    (left) Cover of the June, 1914 issue of The Masses by John French Sloan, depicting the Ludlow Massacre
  • 1913
    Ashcan artists exhibit alongside European modernists like Duchamp, Picasso, and Matisse at the Armory Show in New York

    (left) Armory Show poster
  • 1916
    The first use of the term “ash can art” is credited to cartoonist Art Young in a disdainful critique in the New York Sun

    (left) Art Young, circa 1914
  • 1925
    Luks's The Breaker Boys – imbued with the artist's early memories of coal mining families in Pennsylvania – exemplifies the enduring power of social realist imagery after the ascendancy of avant-garde abstraction

    (left) George Luks, The Breaker Boys, 1925, sold at Sotheby's in 2011 for $170,500
  • 1934
    The term “Ashcan School” is first used in a curatorial context with a 1934 exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art

    (left) Arthur B. Davies, Elysian Fields, 1928
  • 1953
    Everett Shinn, the longest-lived Ashcan artist, dies at the age of 76 in New York

    (left) Everett Shinn, A girl on stage, 1906

Artists

Who Were the Ashcan Artists?

The founders of the movement were Robert Henri, William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn and John Sloan, all of whom studied and worked together in Philadelphia and moved to New York between 1896 and 1904. A second generation of Ashcan painters, many of whom were Henri's students, included George Bellows, Jerome Myers and Gifford Beal. Edward Hopper is sometimes associated with the movement, as are the photographers Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine.

The Ashcan School at Auction

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