08 September 2012

American Realism pre-WW1: the Ashcan School

In 2009 I saw a very special exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery. Called American Impressionism and Realism: A Landmark Exhibition from the Met, it was organised by the curator of American paintings and sculpture at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dr Barbara Weinberg. I was fortunate to see 71 of the Met’s American works, all painted just before or soon after the turn-of-the-century.

I was already familiar with American impressionists like Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, Childe Hassam and William Merritt Chase, but the realists John Sloan and William Glackens were less familiar. Queensland Art Gallery saw its task as examining how proponents of two turn-of-the-century schools responded to modern life. Everyone says that these paintings were infused with light and colour, but the QAG believed they were also infused with meaning.

But what was the meaning? And could non-American audiences tap into the artists’ intentions?

William Glackens, Chez Mouquin, 1905, The Chicago Art Institute

Mark Pennings concentrated on the Ashcan group of Realist artists, most of whom lived in New York where they held their first exhibition in 1908. Their depictions of lower class life in the city’s dilapidated neighbourhoods caused an immediate sensation. Critics claimed the work was vulgar, done by a revolutionary gang. And critics received the gritty photographic journalism of Jacob Riis, in his book How The Other Half Lives (1890), even more harshly. It is ironic that Riis’ book was a best seller.

Pennings certainly believed these American artists were radical but he believed they were also “robust patriots and advocates of a cultural nationalism” that would convey the overwhelming power of a newly industrialised America. Certainly this was the ideal time in American history to be displaying a passion for the modern world. The expansion of oil corporations, railways and banking institutions made for mega-wealthy families, a passion for electricity, a high standard of living for at least half the population, exuberant live entertainment and utopian optimism.

In such a boom period, it was not surprising that 24 million migrants landed in the USA in the decades before WW1 broke out in 1914, most of them disembarking in New York.

There was also a dark side to American life which the artists responded to with sensitivity. Rampant and uncontrolled capitalism left workers in appalling sweatshops, with exploitative salaries, dodgy working conditions and crowded sleeping spaces. And as most of the Ashcan artists seemed to have worked as newspaper illustrators, their art reflected their interests. Robert Henri, John Sloan, William Glackens, George Luks and Everett Shinn were used to depicting events in the urban environment to meet a story deadline - quickly, in detail and with accuracy. George Bellows, Edward Hopper and others joined very quickly.

These artists, newspapers and photographers suggested that American popular culture could help to forge a sense of unity across the nation. Migrants, unpaid workers and exploited women could embrace and share in America’s great democratic tradition via vaudeville, street trams, train subways, high rise buildings, moving pictures and piano rolls.

Furthermore the Ashcan artists wanted to capture the new spirit of American confidence. New York’s highrise buildings started to appear in paintings. Splendid trams were shown, picking up residents in the city streets. Citizens were depicted crowding into music halls, loving the entertainment. Or sitting in beautiful parks, enjoying the sunshine. Office girls wore perky hats. The cityscapes in particular reflect aspects of modern life, at work and at leisure. In 1905, William Glackens painted the New York restaurant, Chez Mouquin, posing Jeanne Louise Mouquin with another restaurant owner, Robert Moore of the Cafe Francis. Both were beautifully dressed and bejewelled.

George Bellows, Polo Crowd, 1910.

Contemporary critics may have claimed the Ashcan artists' work was vulgar. But views change and now images of normal, sporty life are particularly popular. In December 1999, Bill Gates bought George Bellows' painting Polo Crowd 1910 for $27.5 million!

There were two interesting comparisons to make at the Brisbane exhibition. Firstly how did the American Realists differ from the earlier American Impressionists? The Ashcan school seemed to be more vigorous, colourful, direct and masculine than the Impressionists who had down their paintings slightly earlier. Although Snow in New York  1902 wasn’t particularly beautiful, Robert Henri believed it was important to show New York’s brownstones as they really were. The newly fallen snow was broken up by horse and cart tracks and was surrounded on both sides by dark buildings. People were busy fulfilling their daily responsibilities. Clearly the Realists wanted to show modernist, robust and essentially American art.

Secondly how did Australian artists respond to key artistic modernist developments, as compared to contemporary Americans? Thirty important turn-of-the-century Australian paintings were also included in the exhibition for viewers to compare. Australian audiences were very familiar with Tom Roberts, Charles Conder, Frederick McCubbin and Rupert Bunny, but noone knew if our artists would be similar to their artistic brethren across the Pond.

Robert Henri, Snow in New York, 1902, Nation Gallery Art

For those who missed the exhibition, a well written and well illustrated catalogue called American Impressionism and Realism: A Landmark Exhibition from the Met was published in 2009. The publication features an overview of American Impressionism and Realism by exhibition curator Dr Barbara Weinberg, as well as American artists' biographies. The essay on Australian Impressionism and Australian artists' biographies provided a good analysis of American and Australian cultural affinity and divergence. It also emphasised The Call of Europe.


Andrew said...

The first painting certainly tells me a story. It is such a luscious work. I expect, like now, Americans wanted to ignore the huge gaps between the haves and have nots. If the Ashcan group was around a few decades later, I am sure they would have been branded as communists.

Hels said...


you are correct to point out the timing of the realist movement. I went back and added a timeline into the title of the post. Had they come across the House UnAmerican Activities Committee post WW2, they would have certainly ended up unemployed and possibly gaoled.

Even more interesting for us, I am fascinated in the different political readings of the one school of art. "Radical, vulgar, anti-American" Vs "gritty, urban, accurate and heroically America".

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Hels:
A fascinating and most interesting exhibition which is made even more so for centring around a very limited time period. It is always of value too to have an indication as here, where the American works were put alongside those of Australia, as to what was happening in another country, or countries, around the same period.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

There was a very special era of industrial growth and rapid social change between 1890 and 1915. So it is my favourite period for art, architecture, music and literature.

I suppose this era of change was even more so in the USA, and therefore the QAG exhibition was very welcome. I truly did not know much about American Realism before hand. Brave young artists, they were.