The Ashcan School was an art movement prevalent in the United States during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Although it is lesser known than some other movements of a similar period, it represented a radical change in the art world: a move away from romanticism and towards a depiction of the often harsh realities of everyday life. Predominantly, the artists at the forefront of the movement aimed to work in a style of documentary realism in rebellion against the common works of the era which tended to depict only the posh, glamourized lives of New York’s upper classes.

Ashcan School: An Overview 

The Ashcan School wasn’t a highly organized movement. Instead, it arose fairly naturally as a result of several artists being united in their desire to depict the realities of the lives of the less privileged in New York City. These harsh truths had been largely obscured by the grand, idealistic paintings of the lives of the city’s more affluent population. The artists at the center of the movement shared the view of Robert Henri- a painter who is widely considered to be the Ashcan School’s founder- that art should be created ‘for life’s sake’ rather than ‘for art’s sake’. Another overarching view of Henri’s that united the artists was that art should be ‘akin to journalism’. 

Both these ideas led to the principles of the Ashcan School being established. The artists would, like journalists, keep records of day-to-day life, particularly in the less affluent areas of New York City. Through this, they could produce art ‘for life’s sake’, creating work with a greater purpose of enlightening the world to the realities of what life in the city looked like for the majority of the population. Dark color palettes and harsh brushwork were just a few of the paintings’ uniting features. 

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George Luks, Street Scene (1905) _©George Benjamin Luks, Brooklyn Museum

The Development of the Movement

Since the Ashcan Movement was overarchingly a rebellion against impressionism and upper-class realism, two of the most popular styles in the latest years of the 1800s, the Ashcan artists were initially met with some opposition, to the extent that they were dubbed ‘the apostles of ugliness’. However, some of the most famous Ashcan works were produced during the first decade of the 20th Century, and the style soon gained traction. One of the group’s earliest exhibitions was in 1908, held at the Macbeth Gallery in New York City. The works of the exhibition were very well-received, and the movement began to expand further. Several paintings from the show were purchased by collectors, one of whom went on to exhibit four as part of her permanent collection at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

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New York, George Wesley Bellows (1911) _©George Wesley Bellows, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

The movement never developed into one with great radical intent. Unlike some other contemporary artists who painted with certain social or political agendas, the Ashcan artists simply focused on depicting the realities of the typical American worker through various landscapes, portraits, and other works. They continued to take a populist approach to their work as the years went on, painting works that acted as refreshing counterparts to the glorified depictions of cosmopolitan life that dominated the early 20th-Century art scene.

The Prominent Artists of the Movement

The artist who is perhaps the most connected to the Ashcan School is Robert Henri. Other figures who produced paintings associated with the movement include Everett Shinn, George Luks, William Glackens, and John Sloan, all of whom met each other and Henri during their artistic careers, becoming unified by their desire to reform New York’s art scene through diversifying social representation. One of the most renowned paintings from the group is ‘Shop Girls’ by William James Glackens- a depiction of modern working women. 

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Shop Girls, William James Glackens, ca. 1900 _©William James Glackens, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Another well-known painting frequently associated with the Ashcan school is Henri’s 1902 work, ‘Snow in New York’. Most of the artists were united by the iconic characters of their works, which were beautifully energetic yet, to some, mildly unsavory. The loose, raw brush strokes gave their paintings a unique air of imperfection and realness, as can be seen in Henri’s painting below. Ashcan artists focused on painting with a largely dark color palette, often choosing to depict New York in darker, colder weather. 

The Fall of the Movement

By the end of the first few decades of the 1900s, the movement began to lose momentum. Eventually, by around the 1920s, it died out as a result of the rise of modernism. Cubists and expressionists began to appeal more strongly to the American population, and the Ashcan School became a movement of the past. But however quickly it came to an end, the movement has still undeniably influenced the work of artists over the last century. The boldness of their choices regarding subject matter and social commentary became seminal in the history of art: their work represented a shift towards producing more diverse, socially knowledgeable artwork rather than paintings that were ignorant to social division, poverty, and the daily struggles that most people living in cosmopolitan regions face.

REFERENCES LIST: 

Luks, G. (1905). Street Scene. [oil on canvas] (Brooklyn Museum, Dick S. Ramsay Fund) 

Bellows, G. (1911). New York. [oil on canvas] (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)

Glackens, W. (ca. 1900). Shop Girls. [pastel and watercolor on illustration board] (23.230.1, American Paintings and Sculpture, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, NY (Gift of A.E. Gallatin, 1923))

Henri, R. (1902). Snow in New York. [oil on canvas] (1954.4.3, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)

Author

Katie is an architecture student, writer, and lover of words. She envisions a future in which the positive impacts that buildings can have on humans and our planet are prioritised, and hopes to harness the power of language to amplify the stories being whispered through the world of design.

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