By Robert A. Slayton

State University of New York Press. 195 pages. $29.95. ISBN 978-1-4384-6641-5

Reviewed by Jim Burns

“The Ashcan artists drew a part of the city not previously the subject of great art, capturing the laundry lines, the crowded quarters, the smokestacks, and yes, the ashcans of the urban working class”.

That opening statement in Beauty in the City makes clear Robert A. Slayton’s basic attitude towards the group of early-20th century American artists known as the “Ashcan School”. They are also sometimes referred to as “the Immortal Eight”, namely Robert Henri, John Sloan, William J. Glackens, Everett Shinn, Ernest Lawson, George Luks, Maurice Prendergast, and Arthur B. Davies. (See Bernard B. Perlman’s Painters of the Ashcan School: The Immortal Eight, Dover Publications, New York, 1988).

I think it’s necessary to point out that not everyone would agree with including all the artists named as being representative of the Ashcan School approach to painting. The idea of “The Immortal Eight” is based on a 1908 group exhibition. There were, perhaps, five (Henri, Sloan, Shinn, Glackens, Luk) who can be justifiably said to have fulfilled a role that would qualify them for inclusion as Ashcan artists, but what of the others? Slayton describes Ernest Lawson as an “impressionist”, who was included because “everyone liked him”.  Maurice Prendergast was a “Boston artist”, again leaning more towards Impressionism.  Arthur Davies, also with interests in the direction of European influences,  didn’t belong with the Ashcan group, but he was later one of the people responsible for staging the famous 1913 Armoury Show in New York which introduced a range of European avant-garde art to America. It might have been better had the original title of the 1908 show – Eight Independent Artists – remained in force, but journalists and  historians like labels, and Ashcan, originally applied in a derisory way, was a good one.

Some artists who would have suited the label more than Lawson, Prendergast, and Davies, were George Bellows (thought to be too young), Jeffrey Myers (Slayton says he was “upset” by the decision to exclude him), and Glenn O. Coleman, though to be fair he was even younger than Bellows, and his work most likely wouldn’t have been known to the group. But he did draw and paint very much in the Ashcan manner, and like Sloan, Shinn, and the others, he provided illustrations for magazines, newspapers, and books. I have a copy of Hutchins Hapgood’s Types from City Streets (Funk & Wagnalls, New York, 1910), a literary equivalent to what the Ashcan artists did on canvas and paper, and it’s illustrated by Coleman, then still in his early-twenties. Any fair-minded observer would be hard put to deny that Coleman was clearly an Ashcan artist in spirit. 

The question of working for newspapers and magazines isn’t looked into closely by Slayton, though it is important and probably led to some of the artist’s other work (easel paintings) being dismissed by certain critics as superficial, shallow, and sentimental. It could be useful to look at the Bernard Perlman book I referred to earlier. There are examples of the sort of newspaper and magazine material that may indicate why Glackens and Luks were perhaps frowned on in some quarters. Luks had drawn the popular Hogan’s Alley comic strip, featuring the Yellow Kid, for the New York World, and went to Cuba for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin when the Spanish-American War started in 1898.  Glackens also turned up in Cuba , and his drawings of American troops in action appeared in McClure’s Magazine and Munsey’s Magazine. 

They were described as “romantic journalists”, and taken to task because they didn’t express obvious anger or concern about social conditions in their work. The crowded tenements and some signs of poverty are there, but John Sloan and his compatriots essentially focused on what might be called the employed (working and lower-middle class) rather than down-and-outs, drunks, misfits and the misbehaved. Their people may not have had much money, but they could still enjoy themselves. There is a John Sloan etching from 1915, “Return from Toil”, which shows a bunch of women leaving their place of employment. Slayton says that it could be possible to see it as a classic portrait of capitalism’s effect on working-class people:  “On their way home from a long day in the sweatshops, the women walk slowly, their shoulders slumped, their lives a torture”.

It doesn’t strike me like that. The line of women, some with arms linked, are clearly gossiping and laughing and even fooling around if one woman on the left of the picture is anything to go by. I was put in mind of scenes around the mills in the cotton town in the North of England where I grew up. Hundreds of workers flooded out of the main gates as the shift ended, and among them people talked and laughed and planned what they’d be doing later. Yes, the work was hard and their lives were not exactly a bed of roses, but they were individuals, and not just the “masses”, as left-wing intellectuals often liked to refer to them. It’s interesting to note that John Sloan resigned from a position he held at the radical publication, The Masses, because of the narrowness of its policy when it came to illustrations. They were expected to make social and political points, whereas Sloan thought that a broader view of “ordinary” lives would be more appropriate. And more accurate.

In some ways, living in an urban area, and especially somewhere like New York, provided opportunities for lives beyond the humdrum. It’s to the credit of artists like Sloan, Bellows, and Luks that they noticed this, and found the streets and the pastimes of working people worthy subjects for art. This didn’t always go down well with the critics and the kinds of people who visited galleries and bought attractive pictures of genteel scenes to hang in their homes.

Slayton’s argument is that the Ashcan artists were essentially doing something that earlier artists had not done They were recording the lives of ordinary people in New York at a time when the city was rapidly expanding to become the leading centre of social and commercial activity in the country. Earlier painters had gone to Europe to study, and when they came back they brought with them the lessons they had largely learned from the impressionists regarding not only the way to paint, but also what to paint. American Impressionism is a fascinating subject to delve into, but there is little point in denying that it largely focused on the pretty and the polite. Many artists, known and unknown, gravitated to the numerous artists’ colonies that sprang up, especially at locations along the Atlantic seaboard. And even the ones who painted around New York tended to render scenes of gracious living, with parks and tidy pavement-lined avenues where the well-dressed could promenade.

There is a book that Slayton mentions, Impressionist New York by William H. Gerdts (Abbeville Press, New York, 1994) that offers an excellent view of what artists such as Childe Hassam, William Merritt Chase, Theodore Robinson, and Paul Cornoyer were doing in the 1890s and early 1900s. I’m particularly fond of the work of American Impressionists, so my comments are not designed to denigrate them in any way. It just happens to be a fact that the artists named, and others like them, did tend to specialise in views of parks and gardens, and the well-to-do people found in them. Their canvases were a world away (actually sometimes just a few blocks) from Joan Sloan’s sweatshop girls or George Bellows’ boys stripping off and jumping into the river, despite its dangers and dirt.

In a mildly mischievous spirit, I would like to point out that Gerdts’ book does include paintings by Sloan, Glackens, Shinn, Henri, and Luks. So, the definition of what constitutes impressionism can be flexible, just as Ashcan Artist can be. Edmund W. Greacan’s Brooklyn Bridge, East River, could easily be classified as Ashcan, but as far as I know he wasn’t linked to the group. His Docks, Hudson River is a gentle-enough distant rendition of a scene that might have involved dockers and activity, but doesn’t. Look at the contrast with Robert Henri’s Derricks on the North River which almost echoes with noise and urgency.

I could carry on pointing to idiosyncrasies in attempting to categorise artists too closely. William Glackens’ The Drive, Central Park shows the upper middle-class at play. And Everett Shinn’s Madison Square and Dewey Arch is pleasant enough not to unsettle even the most-conservative of viewers. Everett Shinn did paint pictures of working-class life, but also others which portrayed aspects of fashionable society. He had a taste for good living, and mixed with well-to-do people. It’s on record that John Sloan later said that Shinn’s inclusion in the Eight group happened by “accident”.  I always find that talk about movements and groups in the arts, whether painting, literature, or music, makes me want to find the exceptions to the rules, and refer to the amount of exchange and interplay that always goes on.

All that doesn’t lessen my liking for Slayton’s book. Or my sympathies with his general argument about cities in general, and New York in particular, being exciting places with great possibilities for artists. There is a painting by John Sloan called Sunset West Twenty-Third Street, and another by Robert Henri entitled Cumulus Clouds, East River, and both, in their way, seem as fascinating to look at as the fine landscapes by artists like Thomas Cole and Thomas Moran, both associated with the Hudson River School, though Moran also ventured further West to find appropriate subject-matter. The scenes of the city at times like sunset, with the colours in the clouds and the dark outlines of buildings set against them, can arouse deep emotions in the viewer.

Slayton points out that the heyday of Ashcan art was short-lived, and after the Armoury Show in 1913 it lost its impetus as a movement. The individual artists carried on working, of course, but events intervened to dull their impact. Slayton says that “Everett Shinn wound up in Hollywood. Charles Glackens in France. John Sloan spent much of his time in Santa Fe, exploring different themes entirely”.

The great George Bellows, certainly one of the finest painters linked to the Ashcan group died young, in 1925. His boxing pictures assured his fame, if nothing else did, but he painted plenty of others looking at aspects of life in New York. and much else, including excellent portraits, and fine landscapes. Some can be seen in George Bellows: Love of Winter by David Setford and John Wilderming (Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, 1997). He and John Sloan are probably the two Ashcan artists best known in Britain. There was a small exhibition of Bellows’ work at the National Gallery in 2011 and a much larger one at the Royal Academy in 2013.

Did the Ashcan painters have an influence on other artists? Slayton looks at Edward Hopper, who said of them: “The story of John Sloan and his associates is the story of the first really vital movement in the development of a national art that this country has yet known”. But Slayton also says that, compared to Ashcan artists, whose paintings and drawings were full of people coming together on the streets and often seeming to be enjoying themselves, Hopper’s work is marked by its emptiness in the sense of the streets being often devoid of people, or at best with a figure or two. His interiors likewise show people almost isolated. Loneliness appears to be the dominant theme. That certainly wasn’t the case with Sloan, Shinn, Luks, and the rest. Their preoccupation appeared to be to show that, even when the physical environment had its drawbacks, people managed to find ways to mingle and to enjoy themselves. Had this feeling or mood been lost by the time Hopper was painting, or did his canvases simply reflect a personal estrangement from crowds and the scenes of everyday activity?

The one painter who Slayton thinks best carried on the Ashcan tradition was Reginald Marsh, whose work in the 1930s, while identifiably his own, certainly upheld the notion of portraying ordinary people without an overlay of political commentary. I’d agree with him. I doubt that Marsh’s work is widely known in Britain. A couple of his paintings were included in the exhibition, America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s, at the Royal Academy in 2017. A useful guide to Marsh’s work is Marilyn Cohen’s Reginald Marsh’s New York: Paintings, Drawings, Prints and Photographs (Dover Publications, New York, 1983).

Beauty in the City is an enthusiastic and informative book about the Ashcan painters. Robert Slayton makes it clear that he hasn’t written from an art history position, but rather from that of social history. His approach to the subject works well.