By Robert A. Slayton
The Ashcan school represented a challenge to its era. In a fundamental reinterpretation of art’s appropriate subject matter, it threw down a gauntlet, of canvas and paint, to the art world both of the right and of the left. It did not see the city through the narrow peephole of the elites, instead introducing new landscapes, new characters. But these perspectives were also different from what the reformers saw. This new approach painted the rest of the city, with beauty, endowing urban and working-class individuals of all ages and genders with agency and will. In so doing, the Ashcan artists created one of the great American art forms.
The Ashcan artists took this one giant leap further. First and most significantly, they embraced the urban experience in all its diversity. Instead of depicting the city as consisting only of Washington Square, or else as sections grim and dirty and foreign, they understood and sought to paint the sheer excitement of the urban experience. They captured tall buildings but also workers and construction sites, railroads and seagoing barges. Not just the Easter Parade but bustling immigrant neighborhoods; not just elegant salons but decent, cramped, working-class apartment life. John Loughery, in his biography of John Sloan, explained how “Sloan the walker in the city, the explorer of neighborhoods near and far, the spectator of little scenes and daily dramas, ultimately came to the conclusion that it was in the streets he traveled every day, rather than in the studio or the rural areas outside the city limits, that he might find himself as an artist.”
A few perceptive individuals understood this shift. One New York writer, in a 1903 article for Scribner’s Magazine, observed, “What American cities most need to render them beautiful is an artist who will body forth to our duller eyes the beauty already there.” Jerome Myers, a powerful, yet largely unacknowledged artist in the Ashcan school, in a 1940 autobiography described himself “with a solitary crayon pencil, peering at the crowded East Side of New York City. … At nightfall the surcease of a great city, the repose in the parks, or on the recreation piers, the aged gossip, the children at their endless play--a panorama which was for me unceasing in its interest, thrilling in its significance.” His sentiments are clear, as is his sense of the city’s power: “My love was my witness in recording those earnest, simple lives, those visions of slums clothed in dignity, never to me mere slums but the habitations of people who were rich in spirit and effort.”
It is this ethos, first of all, that defined the Ashcan school of art. As everyone who has ever loved New York--or London, or Paris--understands in their soul, the city is an exciting place to be, and in that excitement, there is beauty.
Nobody captured this better than John Sloan, the premier artist of this genre. His Six O’clock, Winter is a masterpiece of this emotion (fig. 3.1). Everything is movement and power. Yet this is not the force depicted in a portrait of a monarch in royal garb, but rather the rumble of a city, and a working city at that. There is no genteel soul strolling here in fashionable clothing. Instead, the people depicted here wear middle-class garments and are pressed together in the rush hour after work. There are masses of them as well; their strength truly is in the infinite number of human threads twisted into the urban figure. This is an epic painting, in a metropolitan setting. Overhead bellows a subway train, a monster of modern industry, not heroic myth; it is held up by pillars and bracing of iron and steel, not the bones of a dragon’s skeleton.
Above all, everything is movement, the city’s hallmark. As the train blasts overhead, against apassionate blue sky, crowds of individuals shuttle back and forth. Most are returning from their jobs, but some are still on the job; note the taxi and bus drives, and the figures in the middle erecting a stand. The notion that winter is a time that hems one in, limits chances, denotes death, is vanquished here. Instead, Gotham’s technology pushes back winter, provides freedom and movement. The figures here are not gloomy; they are happy, despite the dark season. Sloan’s image is an illustration of a great city’s excitement and dynamism. His metropolis is neither elite heaven nor underclass hell. It is a throbbing creature, filled to the brim with life with working-class residents, busy lively people with full lives who make choices to determine how they will handle Gotham.
And the figure on the side, providing scale, in not a lone cowboy or Native American, but instead a woman doing the wash on a rooftop. She is someone with limited resources, making use of what space the urban setting offers to unfurl her clothesline. Regardless, she does not seem cowed by the panorama; rather, she seems contemplative, admiring and pondering what lies before her, just as one would do when gazing on the Grand Canyon. Her situation in life is apparent, yet she seems fully capable of gran thoughts, or appreciating the beauty that Sloan has laid before her. Despite her hard work, she takes it all in, luxuriates in the view, and invites the viewer to think about and admire the city with her. The city can be among God’s gifts to America, too. Rather than drones or the downcast, its working-class residents are sentient creatures who are fully capable of appreciating the beauty here.
This can be seen in George Wesley Bellows’ classic The Cliff-Dwellers (fig. 3.4). Here is the working-class city: boisterous, smelly, full of life. Nothing is glamorous here, yet this is animation, not depression. Theodore Dreiser wrote a review of this painting that began, “It is so direct, so forthright.” There are no hidden nuances, any more than the broad accurate face of life anywhere/” This is hardly a charming scene, as “the walls are so read any dirty. And by day and night, at this time of the year, hot. … And the houses and gutters smell just as do the people--sweaty and weary.” Yet the image is flush--with people, wash lines, pushcarts. These people are not strutting, nor are they defeated. It’s just another hot day in the city for ordinary people, a neighborhood, as Dreiser put it, “packed with… vibrant necessary or unnecessary life.”
And yet, those were exactly the hinds of places that the Ashcan artists made beautiful with their art. George Wesley Bellows’ Blue Morning does a fine work at capturing the city’s aesthetic appeal (fig. 3.5). This is a study in soft, luxuriant tones, a gentle blue predominating. The colors are suited to a painting of an early summer’s evening on a farm, with earth colors in the foreground as hands tend to a flock of sheep.
Excerpt that the subject here is the excavation of Pennsylvania Station, on Ninth Avenue between Thirty-Third and Thirty-Fourth Streets in Manhattan. A massive urban structure dominates the background, while the foreground contains various elements of work in the city: a crane off to the right, laborers toiling with large hammers, and a fence to keep our bystanders, which adds contrast and brown tones.
The artist, therefore, portrays the city as an epic experience, just as a century prior the Hudson River school had captured beauty in the Catskills’ forests. But the density here is not represented by trees or plant life, but by city folk and buildings. Marianne Doezema, in her perceptive study George Bellows and Urban America referred to this image as “the gleaming white station building in construction, rising up out of the great hole,” making it sound like a goddess emerging; but Bellows subject is a work site in New York City. In a 1917 interview, Bellows protested descriptions that called his work innovative, even when they captured the exact elements that made his art fresh. “I have been called a revolutionist,” Bellows complained, “if I am, I don’t know it.” Rather, he asserted, “First of all, I am a painter, and a painter gets hold of life--gets hold of something real, or many real things. That makes him think, and if he thinks out loud he is called a revolutionist.” yet Bellows was indeed an innovator because of what he chose to paint, of where he found beauty.
This then, became the most important contribution of the Ashcan school, even ahead of their revolutionary ideas on cities and art and class. Rather, by depicting the urban scene with unprecedented insight, they fostered the development of a true native art form for America.
Robert A. Slayton is the Henry Salvatori Professor of American Values and Traditions at Chapman University. He is author of several books, including Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith.