Beyond Drawing Basics: Ashcan Drawings

Counted Out, No. 2 by George Bellows, drawingThe artists of the Ashcan School, known for their raw depictions of urban life, shared a background in newspaper and magazine illustration that shaped their drawing and painting styles.

by Edith Zimmerman

Far From the Fresh Air Farm by William Glackens, drawing
Far From the Fresh Air Farm
by William Glackens, 1911,
gouache and crayon on paper,
24½ x 16½.
Collection the Museum of Art,
Fort Lauderdale,
Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

At the turn of the 20th century, cities across America were booming. The influx of immigrants, rapid technological advancements, and changing social stratification had paved the way for a dramatically different country to emerge, which New York City in many ways epitomized. A group of artists gained prominence during this period by pulling their inspiration from the new aesthetics of America’s evolving face, particularly the urbanization that had, until then, been largely invisible within the art world. For the most part, these artists replaced genteel portraits and depictions of aristocratic pursuits with intimate illuminations of the cogs that turned the city—the gritty or quietly tender workings of day-to-day-life; urban dwellers struggling to prosper; and grime, garbage, and fleeting moments of joy.

What’s in a Name?
The artists who most defined this period of American art were known as both The Eight and the Ashcan School. The Eight is a historical term that refers to one specific show at the Macbeth Galleries, in New York City, that exhibited the work of Robert Henri (1865–1929), George Luks (1866–1933), William Glackens (1870–1938), John Sloan (1871–1951), Everett Shinn (1876–1953), Maurice Prendergast (1858–1924), Ernest Lawson (1873–1939), and Arthur Bowen Davies (1862–1928). The show, called “Eight American Painters,” was designed to display a range of new styles. The goal was to make a mark in the art world by demonstrating that artists could put together their own exhibitions, as opposed to being organized exclusively by curators or art collectors. “The Macbeth Galleries marketed American art at a time when few galleries did,” explains Rebecca Zurier, the author of Picturing the City: Urban Vision and the Ashcan School (University of California Press, Berkeley, California). “These artists promoted themselves as a breath of fresh air in the art world. They ended up with the name ‘The Eight’ because a clever art critic called them that in reference to ‘The Ten,’ which was a previous group of artists who did work that was considered rather genteel. The name stuck, and the term ‘revolutionary’ was soon attached to them as well.” Branding the group with a name, however, was less in response to the artists’ similarities than it was an attempt to generate press. “Most of the hype at the time,” Zurier says, “was aimed at getting people to buy newspapers. Media—including the art press—was in the throes of yellow journalism, puffing everything up into headline news to generate readership.” Artists and art critics naturally wanted to harness this mania to encourage interest in their field as well, so they made bold and often exaggerated statements to garner attention.

The Woman’s Page by John Sloan, drawing
The Woman’s Page
by John Sloan, 1905–1906,
etching, 4½ x 6½.
Collection Detroit
Institute of Arts,
Detroit, Michigan.

“People like to have names to hang ideas on,” Zurier continues, “but terms such as The Eight and Ashcan School aren’t that important. The term Ashcan, for instance, came along later, in the 1930s, when art history was being written and historians wanted to create roots for why art in the 1930s looked the way it did. Artists of the 1930s, such as Reginald Marsh (1898–1954) and Edward Hopper (1882–1967) had studied with artists from The Eight, and art historians wanted to connect the dots. It’s not clear exactly when the term Ashcan came about, but it’s quite possible that the Macbeth Galleries came up with the term when it organized a retrospective of the work from that period. Although it’s a popular myth, the term wasn’t used because all the paintings contained images of ash cans—which would be known today as trash bins. The artists in the Ashcan School who were still around in the 1930s resented the term, actually. However, it has generally stuck within the art-history world.”

The Common Thread
Their connection—or lack thereof—with traditional fine art, as well their experiences with drawing, distinguished the Ashcan School artists from their peers both within the country and abroad. None of the artists had any formal art training, and nearly all came from backgrounds in newspapers and illustration. The two exceptions were Robert Henri, who was trained formally and became a mentor for many of The Eight, and George Bellows (1882–1925), who received academic training but also worked as a newspaper illustrator.

Old Billiard-player by George Bellows, drawing
Old Billiard-player
by George Bellows, 1921, lithograph.

“Drawing was important to their formation as artists and to the way they conceived the art they made,” explains Zurier. “Paintings, etchings, lithographs—all their art was formed by their foundation in drawing. They came to drawing not necessarily from art school but rather from backgrounds with newspaper cartooning and illustration. Among the four core artists—the Philadelphia artists: Glackens, Luks, Sloan, and Shinn—none of them went to art school first, and none of them came from social backgrounds that expected them to be fine artists. It was the fact that they could draw that got them employment and a paycheck. Shinn, for instance, worked in a lamp factory, and they all ended up in newspapers. Their work was art, certainly, but it wasn’t focused toward fine art in any way.”

Because of their histories at periodicals, where sketching techniques were valued as a trade, many of the Ashcan artists developed unique conceptions of the role of drawing. Whereas academically trained fine artists tended to consider sketching and drawing as only the foundations for in-depth oil paintings, the artists of the Ashcan School valued sketches as completed works that were required to stand alone, as the artists had to do in their former trade.

Self-portrait by George Luks, drawing
by George Luks, 1893, graphite.
Collection the Hirshhorn Museum
and Sculpture Garden at the
Smithsonian American Art Museum,
Washington, DC.

Status of the Sketch
Where the worlds of fine art and illustration overlapped for the Ashcan artists was in the concept of the sketch. “Henri, from his fine-art background, had picked up on the independent importance of the sketch,” says Zurier. “He learned that the sketch reveals something authentic about the artist, that it’s less worked over than elaborate art, and that there’s innate value in that. The other artists were simultaneously learning the value of the sketch from their work at newspapers, where they had to work quickly. There was also a change in what people at that time expected from a drawing. The public began to prefer the sketchy look of illustrations in magazines rather than the stiffer look of the wood engravings that had been popular during the Civil War, for instance. The 1890s marked a period in periodicals that gave the reader a looser, more in-the-moment line, one that was often incomplete and preserved a sense of freshness.”

The improving technology at the time also facilitated this aesthetic, allowing artists to reprint drawn work rather than limiting their illustrative production to woodcuts and engravings. The readership at the time therefore learned to value the sketch for pragmatic reasons as well—they realized that they were now able to access more honest, eyewitness accounts that were increasingly personal and immediate. During this period when newspaper illustrators were changing the face of periodicals, Robert Henri founded a sketching club for his friends. This club—called the Charcoal Club—became the fine-art catalyst for many of the Ashcan artists. “When these news illustrators met Henri for informal sessions of the Charcoal Club, he encouraged them to see artistic potential in what they saw every day,” says Zurier. “Their backgrounds in the press gave a particular significance to what drawing meant to the these artists, and what characterized their work was its sketchiness.” It was that quality of loose, incomplete lines giving the impression of spontaneity and honesty that eventually came to influence their later work as fine artists.

Although some oil paintings produced by the artists of the Ashcan School contain aspects of humor, most of the more iconic Ashcan images possess a darkness aimed at reflecting blue-collar realities. Their drawings, however, contain more comedy and caricature, which is both characteristic of the medium and indicative of the artists’ mindsets.

Anne by George Bellows, drawing
by George Bellows, 1924, lithograph.
The artist’s older daughter.

“The Ashcan artists valued the effect of spontaneity,” says Zurier, “and they carried this effect into their paintings. Sloan’s etchings [such as Girls Sliding] and Bellows’ photos try to do this as well. From Henri they learned the value of touch and direct encounter—that one should give the impression of having worked quickly so that the art doesn’t look labored but rather appears honest and direct.”

Humor manifested itself in their work in various ways. “Part of it was a social thing,” Zurier continues. “There were different expectations for different kinds of art. Painting was considered more serious—and expensive—while drawings were made in conjunction with illustration and cartooning for humorous stories and articles. It was the expectation of the medium.” [For instance, Bellows’ Business-men’s Class, Y.M.C.A.] This humor carried over into their personal lives as well. “In Sloan’s and Henri’s letters to each other they joked quite a bit [as illustrated in the postcard from Sloan to Shinn casually titled Henri and His 8,]” says Zurier. “Sloan in particular liked puns. There were often funny drawings in the corners of their letters. But does it carry over to the paintings? Rarely. They had an elevated idea of what their paintings were and should be, as did the viewers and the buyers. They all shared an elevated idea of paintings, which they believed should be less specific and more timeless.”

Woman and Child by George Luks
Woman and Child
by George Luks, graphite, 8 x 5.
Collection University of Michigan
Museum of Art, Ann Arbor,

For Sloan, the question was less about whether to incorporate humor but rather whether to demonstrate his political commitment. “Sloan thought art should be involved with politics, and politics with art,” Zurier explains. “He believed that pictures should call attention to present-day injustice. He went through contortions about which art he would dedicate to political policy and which art he did that was different. His work often had a satiric edge to it. His pictures of working-class people were always very sympathetic, which was in line with his politics. He tried to make distinctions, however, between political arenas and what he was doing in his paintings.

“In Bellows’ work, humor takes a slightly different spin,” Zurier continues. “It’s not exactly humor, but it’s definitely caricature. There’s an element of the grotesque in a lot of his depictions of the lower class. Patty Flannagan [not shown] and his famous boxing paintings are good examples of the full impact of this. On the large scale of a visceral oil painting, the elements of facial caricature become vivid and disturbing. It’s clear that he’s not trying to make naturalistic art; although if you look at naturalistic writing of the period, there are lot of grotesque writers who get to the heart of things and show violence and degradation—Bellows seems to have had a similar idea. In his effort to be realistic, he felt he had to show ugly truths and exaggerate them. It makes the images moving, and it makes strong paintings. In his work there were often class distinctions, and it was usually members of the lower class who appear grotesque, whereas most of his upper-class subjects look elegant. In his rawer works, there are elements of both attraction and repulsion. He plays on that to show his viewers that he’s unflinching in his portrayal of the world. But there is certainly an element of physical attraction in his work as well. Both aspects can be traced back to caricature.”

Business-men’s Class, Y.M.C.A. by George Bellows, drawing
Business-men’s Class, Y.M.C.A.
by George Bellows, 1916, lithograph.

Henri’s Influence
Robert Henri was an informal mentor to the artists from Philadelphia and a formal instructor to George Bellows. His background was unusual: he came from the West, supposedly spoke with a Southern accent, and had a father who was a professional gambler and real-estate prospector who shot a man over a financial dispute. After the shooting, his family left town and changed their surname. They came East, settled in Atlantic City, and from there Henri attended art school in Philadelphia. After that, he spent time in Europe, where he attended the École des Beaux-Arts, in Paris. He eventually returned to Philadelphia and taught at an art school for women. In the meantime, four other artists, most of whom knew one another through their work in newspapers, had gravitated to Philadelphia from small towns in the area. Some of them took classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts but continued to work at newspapers during the day. These artists—Glackens, Luks, Sloan, and Shinn—met Henri at a party. They got along well, and after a short time Henri agreed to coach a sketch club for which he would critique their work and help them hire models. This group—the aforementioned Charcoal Club—became a social event as well. They met at the studio once a week, where Henri would expound to the younger artists about various topics, including what he was reading. “Henri read a lot,” Zurier says. “Emerson, anarchists, labor news, fiction—he believed art should be a calling, and he tried to inspire his friends, these working drudges on the newspapers, to think of art as more than a job—as a seed of a new kind of art that could be in line with the great art of the past but with the potential to become a great new American art as well.” Henri eventually moved to New York City, where he landed a teaching job. One by one the members of the Charcoal Club followed. They came primarily so they could get work at magazines, which paid more than newspapers, or at more prestigious newspapers. They also knew they could be part of a bigger art world in New York City. Bellows, who was a bit younger than the rest, had been a student at Ohio State University, in Columbus. Although his family hoped he’d be an architect, he was a semipro baseball player and cartooned for the college yearbook. One of his art professors at Ohio State suggested Bellows study art in New York, so his family sent him to the city, where he ended up studying under Henri. “Before long,” Zurier explains, “they had a very close relationship. Henri invited Bellows to exhibit with other artists he was backing at the time and shortly after asked Bellows to be his teaching assistant.”

Girls Sliding by John Sloan, drawing
Girls Sliding
by John Sloan, 1915, etching,
4¼ x 5.

In 1945, Sloan wrote of this image,
“Happy, healthy girls putting
on a floor show for appreciative bums
in Washington Square. There are
some battles in these things, but
they are pretty well eliminated.”

In New York City, the Philadelphia artists continued to meet, and Henri continued to play an important role in their work as they made the transition from illustration to fine art.

Connection to New York City
Although many of its artists had roots elsewhere, the Ashcan movement was deeply and inextricably linked to New York City. The city epitomized America’s urbanization, which affected the artists’ mentalities and inspired their most revolutionary work. Full-size oil images of the underbelly of urban life had been largely unknown in America before the Ashcan artists began to investigate the seamier side of society and the city. “During this period, artists across the world were gravitating to cities—Tokyo, Paris, London—and making art about it, which made Ashcan artists part of a worldwide trend,” Zurier says. “Often the people doing it were either reading illustrated newspapers and magazines or contributing to them or both. There’s a nexus there that goes beyond these artists and New York—it’s a trend that extends from the middle of the 19th century onward for the next 100 years, at least. Artists flock to cities—it’s where the work is, the community is, the day jobs are, and the press is—so that they can become famous.”

Important art reviewers such as The New York Times and other newspapers and magazines were centered in the city, as were notable critics, which also played a significant role in luring the artists to the city. “Striving spirits from all small towns yearn to get to New York City,” Zurier says. “Partly it’s speed: buildings are being torn down, going up, businesses going out of business, others opening up. The artists’ way of capturing speed was not to be a futurist and fragment form but rather to use that sketchy line and capture what was happening at a specific street corner at a specific time. That sketchlike style allowed them to not only meditate on the changing aspect but also to snatch some little bit of the beginning of the city. It’s therefore not just a collection of random moments that defy comprehension, the way that certain abstract art was doing. On the other hand, it’s not nailed down, detailed, and completely narrative the way that Victorian art so frequently was. Ashcan art was in many ways like news articles—it was ephemeral but it tried to shape the ideas for its viewers beyond generic construction.” Many of the images from this period illustrate this fascination with the city, such as Sloan’s Girls Sliding and Night Windows.

Counted Out, No. 2 by George Bellows, drawing
Counted Out, No. 2
by George Bellows, 1921, lithograph.

The social dynamic of the city was also undergoing dramatic reconfiguration as thousands of immigrants from all over the world poured into New York daily. “There was a huge social combination as immigrant groups were coming in—and not just staying in ghettoized areas of Lower Manhattan,” Zurier explains. “The children of immigrants were becoming New Yorkers and making their way into entertainment and fashion and bumping up against older families, and Ashcan artists were interested in this. Urban visuality interested them a great deal—the way people are aware of looking at each other in a city. People stare at each other, and they know they’re going to be stared at in turn. They look good, they look stylish in a way you don’t get in other cities, and that goes up and down the social ladder. The artists responded to this—women in all classes, for instance, were going out in stylish outfits, and there was protest against this. For many, it was improper for women to flaunt themselves—but it was picked up in pop culture, movies, and song. The city’s visual flirtation made a great environment for artists. It perpetuated the culture of looking. Social-reform agencies paid great attention to visual display, as did architecture firms and other aesthetically minded organizations. It was an urban phenomenon to which artists were particularly responsive.” This theme is detectable in Sloan’s Fifth Avenue Critics.

Night Windows
by John Sloan, 1910, etching, 5¼ x 7.
Collection Philadelphia Museum of Art,
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Relevance Throughout the 20th Century and Into the 21st Century
The influence of the Ashcan artists can be easily seen in subsequent generations of American art—sometimes very directly. Sloan and Luks and other Ashcan artists went on to teach younger artists who would eventually come to define their own artistic generations. One particularly influential aspect of Ashcan art, according to Zurier, is the way it informed the blossoming medium of photography. “I think the Ashcan spirit of art—the spontaneity of capturing fleeting moments—migrated especially well to street photography,” she explains. “Sloan was asked to lecture at the Photography League in the 1930s to a group of New York City photographers who were originally rather left-wing and had the idea that you should look around to see what people are doing on the streets and grab some aspect of that reality—that’s what really informed street photography. The journalistic roots of the Ashcan School also inspired the street photographers. As attention shifted onto modern art, however, Ashcan art was described as the foil—the art that just ‘didn’t get it.’ Stuart Davis, for instance, who grew up with the Ashcan artists, who took classes with Henri, and who Sloan took under his wing, eventually wrote that anything he learned from Henri seemed beside the point when he saw what real modernist art looked like.

Fifth Avenue Critics by John Sloan, drawing
Fifth Avenue Critics
by John Sloan, 1905, etching.
Collection Delaware Art Museum,
Wilmington, Delaware.

“Ashcan art didn’t partake in that whole Duchampian ideal. There was neither irony nor deep intellectual ideas of art, which therefore made them seem irrelevant to many modernist artists. But small details indicate that this was never entirely the case—Henri’s book The Art Spirit, for instance, has never gone out of print. The book is about art as a calling, and people continue to read it for what he presents.”

Despite their flickers in and out of fashion, Ashcan paintings remain extremely popular, and interest in the drawings of the Ashcan School has only mounted. Past exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum have focused exclusively on drawings and prints by The Eight, and a current exhibition at the Delaware Art Museum, in Wilmington, centers on the work of John Sloan (“Seeing the City: Sloan’s New York,” October 20, 2007, through January 20, 2008).

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