BEAUTY IN THE CITY : THE ASHCAN SCHOOL
By Robert A. Slayton
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 “
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
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
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
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
I could carry on pointing to idiosyncrasies in attempting to
categorise artists too closely. William Glackens’
All that doesn’t lessen my liking for Slayton’s book. Or my
sympathies with his general argument about cities in general, and
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
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
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
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.