"Vision From An Ashcan": A Radical Exploration of New Subjects

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.

First, they reconceptualized art as well as the city itself. To artists trained in the National Academy, landscapes were the stuff of rural settings, pastures and farmers, and nature’s grand tableaus. Elite urban artists expanded this notion, by showing how downtown settings, with broad boulevards and well-dressed residents, could also be fitting subjects for their talent. As Michael Owen wrote in the foreword to a catalog for an Ashcan exhibit, “the near banishment of the pretty girl in the garden was replaced with a new awareness of urban realism.”[1]

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.”[2]

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.”[3]

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.[4]

3.1 John Sloan (1871 - 1951)  Six O’clock, Winter , 1912, oil on canvas, 26 1/8 x 32 inches; 66.3575 x 81.28 cm. Acquired 1922. © 2009 Delaware Art Museum/Artists Rights Society, New York. The Phillips Collection, Washington DC.

3.1 John Sloan (1871 - 1951) Six O’clock, Winter, 1912, oil on canvas, 26 1/8 x 32 inches; 66.3575 x 81.28 cm. Acquired 1922. © 2009 Delaware Art Museum/Artists Rights Society, New York. The Phillips Collection, Washington DC.

Sloan was also capable of capturing a different mood, albeit one that was still intensely urban. In many ways, Sunset West Twenty-Third Street (fig. 3.2)looks like a tableau of the Monument Valley from a John Ford western. While the scale is equally epic, the setting is urban and working class. Thus, the view remains profound, and cast in scale. But these are skyscrapers, not buttes, and the lights are electric, not from stars. The beauty here is real, but shaped and created by humans in that greatest of their inventions, the modern city. This, too, shows how the Ashcan artists reconceived the physical, and how they endowed Gotham with beauty by reinventing old forms to fit a new setting.

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.

3.2 John Sloan (1871 - 1951),  Sunset West Twenty-Third Street  (23rd Street, Roofs, Sunset), 1906, oil on canvas, 24 3/8 x 36 1/4; 61.91 x 92.1 cm. Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska. 25th Anniversary Purchase, 1957.15.

3.2 John Sloan (1871 - 1951), Sunset West Twenty-Third Street (23rd Street, Roofs, Sunset), 1906, oil on canvas, 24 3/8 x 36 1/4; 61.91 x 92.1 cm. Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska. 25th Anniversary Purchase, 1957.15.

The Ashcan school, however, shared at least one element with elite painters like Childe Hassam, and that was that both groups used the impressionist technique. Ashcan artists, however, did not use this method to guide their subject matter but rather as a tool, a fluid technique to capture the city’s movement. As noted in the introduction to American Impressionism and Realism, “They had at their disposal a vigorous style that was particularly effective for interpreting a dynamic time in a democratic place.”[5] This technique, however, made no departures from the canon; instead, their contributions, their grand thrust, lay elsewhere. As Judith Zilczer pointed out, “Compared to their French counterparts the American Eight were hardly revolutionary in style.” John I. H. Baur, director of the Whitney Museum, in his assessment of what was novel about the Ashcan school, and what was not, asserted that there artists pressed for “a social liberalism as radical in its day as their styles were conservative.”[6]

3.3 George Luks (1867 - 1933),  Thompson and Bleecker Streets , ca. 1905, oil on canvas, 20 x 30 inches. Palmer Museum of Art of the Pennsylvania State University. Gift of James and Barbara Palmer. 2005.14.

3.3 George Luks (1867 - 1933), Thompson and Bleecker Streets, ca. 1905, oil on canvas, 20 x 30 inches. Palmer Museum of Art of the Pennsylvania State University. Gift of James and Barbara Palmer. 2005.14.

In George Luks’ Thompson and Bleecker Streets (fig. 3.3), we see what made the Ashcan school both original and traditional. On the one hand, there is the style, the characteristic impressionist style, the dappled images. Yet the subject matter stands out; here this method is used to portray the congestion of a crowded immigrant shopping district, of women rummaging through pushcarts. This, too, shows how the Ashcan artists reconceived the physical, how they endowed Gotham with beauty, reinventing old forms to fit a new setting. Thus, the great rebellion of the Ashcan school was in what its artists chose to draw, rather than in howthey drew it. Their hallmark was in making beautiful subjects no artists had deemed fitting before, urban landscapes and the working classes who dwelled within them. As historian Peter Conn asserted, “Theirs was a concern primarily with new subject matter, not with new technique.”[7]

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.”[8]

3.4 George Wesley Bellows (1882 - 1925),  The Cliff-Dwellers , 1913, oil on canvas, 40 3/16 x 42 1/16; 102.07 x 106.83 cm. Los Angeles County Fund (16.4). Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California. Digital Image © 2016 Muesum Associates/LACMA. Licensed by Art Resource, New York.

3.4 George Wesley Bellows (1882 - 1925), The Cliff-Dwellers, 1913, oil on canvas, 40 3/16 x 42 1/16; 102.07 x 106.83 cm. Los Angeles County Fund (16.4). Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California. Digital Image © 2016 Muesum Associates/LACMA. Licensed by Art Resource, New York.

Thus, the Ashcan school redefined what was the fitting subject for a painting in a fundamental way. They understood that a new American presented new scenes, new people to draw. William Taylor, in his study of New York City, In Pursuit of Gotham, complained, “The visual properties of modern cities like New York must have seemed a kind of antipastoral vision of the beautiful. It was one thing to portray people scattered across fields, at work and at play; it was quite another to depict them against a background of concrete, glass, and asphalt.” Moreover, Taylor continued, “there was something, too, about man in relation to machine that seemed initially incongruous, even grotesque. Tall building… blocked the horizon; created dark, sunless canyons; overshadowed waterways; and dwarfed those bits of vegetation. … It proved difficult to portray people in such settings without dwarfing or dehumanizing them.”[9]

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.[10]

3.5 George Wesley Bellows (1882 - 1925),  Blue Morning , 1909, oil on canvas, 31 1/2 x 43 1/2 inches. Private Collection/Bridgeman Images.

3.5 George Wesley Bellows (1882 - 1925), Blue Morning, 1909, oil on canvas, 31 1/2 x 43 1/2 inches. Private Collection/Bridgeman Images.

And so, the Ashcan artists broke from rural, pastoral tradition in American art by discovering the physical beauty of the urban setting and its residents. John Corbin, writing in 1903, five years before the Macbeth exhibition, thought the city “grotesque” and “formless” yet still sought “an artist bent on divining new forms of beauty” in this environment. Louis Baury, in a 1911 article in The Bookman, went even further, capturing what the Ashcan school had accomplished. “Only a handful,” he realized, “had sensed the fact that the vital message of the age is flashed forth in the incandescent signs on Broadway and graven on the park benches which are set down here and there among the metropolitan mountains of men.” Baury recognized what was happening with the Ashcan movement, how “these few painters are artistic pioneers; to them the many-tongued voice of the city is speaking in definite, insistent terms. For them this Occidental sphinx has become articulate.”[11]

*****

Painters, writers, and cinema stars would later flesh out the elements of this new, American vision. Henri argued that there was “only one reason for the development of art in America and that is that the people of America learn the means of expressing themselves in their own time and their own land. … What we do need is art that expresses the spirit of the people of today.” Dresier concluded that the Ashcan artists had intended to “paint every day New York life,” that to these practitioners “a Hester Street pushcart is a better subject than a Dutch windmill.” These components of the city were not just represented in oils, charcoals, and watercolors, either. Charlie Chaplin, one of the masters of the great, emerging visual form of the era, exclaimed in 1919, “There is beauty in the slums!--for those who can see it despite the dirt and the sordidness.”[39]

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.

Copyright © 2017 SUNY Press. Excerpted from Beauty in the City: The Ashcan School with the author's permission. All rights reserved.