The Ashcan School was an artistic movement in the United States during the late 19th-early 20th century that is best known for works portraying scenes of urban life in New York, often in the city’s poorer neighborhoods.
The best known artists working in this style included Robert Henri (1865–1929), George Luks (1867–1933), William Glackens (1870–1938), John Sloan (1871–1951), and Everett Shinn (1876–1953). Some of them met studying together under the renowned realist Thomas Anshutz at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Others met in the newspaper offices of Philadelphia where they worked as illustrators.
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The Farmer and His Son at Harvesting, by Thomas Pollock Anschutz in 1879. Anshutz was an American painter and teacher. Known for his portraiture and genre scenes, Anshutz was a co-founder of The Darby School. One of Thomas Eakins’s most prominent students, he succeeded Eakins as director of drawing and painting classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
Cross Streets of New York, 1899 Everett Shinn, Shinn started as a newspaper illustrator in Philadelphia, demonstrating a rare facility for depicting animated movement, a skill that would, however, soon be eclipsed by photography. Here he worked with William J. Glackens, George Luks and John Sloan, who became core-members of the Ashcan School, led by Robert Henri, which defied official good taste in favour of robust images of real life.
Central Park 1901, Maurice Prendergast. Acclaimed as America’s most distinctive Post-Impressionist, the well-travelled Maurice Prendergast settled in New York in 1914, one year after participating in the transformative Armory Show. Deeply influenced by the work of Paul Cezanne and the Fauves, the French-trained Prendergast captured the energy of city life in this tapestry-like park scene.
Henri’s stark image of New York in the snow deviates from impressionist urban snow scenes of the period in several ways: it represents a common side street rather than a major avenue; there is nothing narrative, anecdotal, or prettified about the image; the straightforward, one-point perspective composition is devoid of trivial details. In his Record Book, Henri described Snow in New York as, ‘N.Y. down E. on 55th St. from 6 Ave. Brown houses at 5 Ave. storm effect. snow. wagon to right.’
In this scene capturing a crowded pushcart market on Hester Street on New York’s Lower East Side, George Benjamin Luks positions the viewer directly at street level and in close proximity to the array of men, women, and children who throng the foreground. Although the painting has been interpreted as a sympathetic vignette of Jewish life, it shows a closer kinship to Luks’s colleague Robert Henri’s method of representing people as racial or ethnic “types” rather than as specific individuals. The figures are presented in profile, with particular attention to skin color and physical features, while the subject matter relates to a series of caricatures of Jewish peddlers, that Luks created for Truth magazine in the 1890s.
This celebration of male companionship attests to Sloan’s conviction that the real artist finds beauty in common things. Sloan often stopped at this New York neighborhood saloon, fascinated by the range of humanity he found there. McSorley’s Old Ale House retains this mood and character even today, with one notable change; in 1970, protests by feminists put an end to what had for more than one hundred years been an exclusively male domain.
After studying at the Pennsylvania Academy at night and making his living with John Sloan, George Luks, and Everett Shinn as an illustrator at The Philadelphia Press, William James Glackens continued his artistic education abroad. Cycling through Northern Europe with Robert Henri in 1895, Glackens returned to Paris, where he had ample opportunity to study French painters, particularly the works of Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, and Auguste Renoir, whom he greatly admired. Glackens established himself in New York City by 1896, and in 1910 he began a series of paintings depicting the Washington Square area. By then the park represented the demarcation between the old and new communities of New York
Men of the Docks idepicts a group of men, wearing overcoats smeared in grime, standing at a dock in Brooklyn together with some draught horses. These men appear to be day laborers, looking for work. They look to the left while a large steam liner looms over them to their right. Behind them are a tugboat and the waters and ice floes of the harbor in winter. Further behind them are the skyscrapers of Manhattan. The winter weather about them is bleak and gray
Cliff Dwellers by George Bellows depicts a colorful crowd on New York City’s Lower East Side, on what appears to be a hot summer day. People spill out of tenement buildings onto the streets, stoops, and fire escapes. Laundry flaps overhead and a street vendor hawks his goods from his pushcart in the midst of all the traffic. In the background, a trolley car heads toward Vesey Street.
Edward Hopper frequently represented people as they appeared to him in brightly lit windows seen from passing El trains. New York Interior depicts the turned back of a young woman sewing. This unconventional view suggests the impersonal, yet strangely intimate, quality of modern urban life, as glimpsed voyeuristically through a window. The woman’s clothing and gesture are reminiscent of the iconic ballet dancers painted by French Impressionist Edgar Degas, whom Hopper singled out as the artist whose work he most admired.
Dempsey and Firpo, was one of George Bellows’s most ambitious paintings, capturing a pivotal moment in the14 September 1923 prizefight between American heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey and his Argentine rival Luis Angel Firpo. The frenzy lasted less than four minutes, Firpo going to the floor nine times and Dempsey twice. Although Dempsey was the eventual victor, the artist chose to represent the dramatic moment when Firpo knocked his opponent out of the ring with a tremendous blow to the jaw.