Ashcan School 1891 – 1918

Term first used by Holger Cahill and Alfred Barr in Art in America (New York, 1934) and loosely applied to American urban realist painters. In particular it referred to those members of The Eight who shortly after 1900 began to portray ordinary aspects of city life in their paintings, for example George Luk’s painting Closing the Café (1904; Utica, NY, Munson-Williams-Proctor Inst.). Rober Heri, John Sloan, William J Glackens, Everett Shinn and Luks were the core of an informal association of painters who, in reaction against the prevailing restrictive academic exhibition procedures, mounted a controversial independent exhibition at the Macbeth Galleries, New York (1908).

The Ashcan School, also called the Ash Can School, was an artistic movement in the United States during the early twentieth century that is best known for works portraying scenes of daily life in New York, often in the city’s poorer neighborhoods The most famous 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 whom had met studying together under the renowned realist Thomas Anshutz at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and others of whom met in the newspaper offices of Philadelphia where they worked as illustrators The movement has been seen as emblematic of the spirit of political rebellion of the period

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he Ashcan School was not an organized movement The artists who worked in this style did not issue manifestos or even see themselves as a unified group with identical intentions or career goals Some were politically minded, and others were apolitical Their unity consisted of a desire to tell certain truths about the city and modern life they felt had been ignored by the suffocating influence of the Genteel Tradition in the visual arts Robert Henri, in some ways the spiritual father of this school, “wanted art to be akin to journalism he wanted paint to be as real as mud, as the clods of horse-shit and snow, that froze on Broadway in the winter” He urged his younger friends and students to paint in the robust, unfettered, ungenteel spirit of his favorite poet, Walt Whitman, and to be unafraid of offending contemporary taste He believed that working-class and middle-class urban settings would provide better material for modern painters than drawing rooms and salons

The Ashcan school is sometimes linked to the group known as “The Eight”, though in fact only five members of that group (Henri, Sloan, Glackens, Luks, and Shinn) were Ashcan artists The other three – Arthur B Davies, Ernest Lawson, and Maurice Prendergast – painted in a very different style, and the exhibition that brought “The Eight” to national attention took place in 1908, several years after the beginning of the Ashcan style However, the attention accorded the group’s well-publicized exhibition at the Macbeth Galleries in New York 1908 was such that Ashcan art gained wider exposure and greater sales and critical attention than it had known before

The Macbeth Galleries exhibition was held to protest the restrictive exhibition policies of the powerful, conservative National Academy of Design and to broadcast the need for wider opportunities to display new art of a more diverse, adventurous quality than the Academy generally permitted When the exhibition closed in New York, where it attracted considerable attention, it toured Chicago, Toledo, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Bridgeport, and Newark in a traveling show organized by John Sloan Reviews were mixed, but interest was high (“Big Sensation at the Art Museum, Visitors Join Throng Museum and Join Hot Discussion,” one Ohio newspaper noted) As art historian Judith Zilczer summarized the venture, “In taking their art directly to the American public, The Eight demonstrated that cultural provincialism in the United States was less pervasive than contemporary and subsequent accounts of the period had inferred” Sales and exhibition opportunities for these painters increased significantly in the ensuing years