The Ashcan School of Art: A Brief Introduction
The Ashcan School of art refers to a loose grouping of North American artists working in the early twentieth century. These artists used realist techniques to present the everyday life of the American urban working classes.
Compared with artistic movements such as American abstract expressionism and European impressionism, the Ashcan art studio is less well-known. Despite this, it profoundly impacted the development of American art, with replica paintings and art reproductions still highly sought-after today.
In this brief introduction, we’ve answered some of the most commonly asked questions about this fascinating style with a deep social conscience.
What is the Ashcan School style?
Artists working within the Ashcan School of art described themselves as “urban realists.” While this covered a broad range of styles and topics, artists associated with the movement devoted themselves to creating realistic depictions of everyday life in America.
The Ashcan School challenged American Impressionism. This was the predominant style of art at the time, focusing on decorative and ornamental art. It primarily took inspiration from European Classicism and the French Impressionists.
Conversely, Ashcan art sought to reach the “truth” of society. While they often depicted scenes of poverty, Ashcan artists also represented simple everyday life as they saw it. As well as urban deprivation, this resulted in some stunning and bucolic scenes capturing a unique moment in early twentieth-century America.
Stylistically, Ashcan artists often used a dark color palette. Labeled the “revolutionary black gang,” their approach shocked many contemporary audiences. This dark color palette referenced artists such as Diego Velazquez, Francisco de Goya, and Rembrandt van Rijn.
Ashcan art also took inspiration from more recent realist trends pioneered by the likes of Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas. They utilized simple compositional techniques allowing the artists to paint scenes from memory. Indeed, many of the artists honed these skills during years working as newspaper illustrators.
When did the Ashcan School start?
The Ashcan School style began towards the end of the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, it truly became prominent in the first decade of the twentieth century.
Initially, American galleries and audiences considered their subject matter too gritty and unsettling. The artists consequently often struggled to gain critical and commercial success. This changed with a group show at the National Arts Club in 1904, followed by a legendary (and well-publicized) exhibition of “The Eight” at Macbeth Galleries in 1908.
The movement was relatively short-lived and lost momentum with the onset of the Second World War. While the conflict did not reach American shores directly, European modernist movements such as Cubism, Fauvism, and Abstraction came to dominate.
With these developments, the highly localized creations of the Ashcan artists looked increasingly out of touch with a rapidly changing and globalizing world.
Why is it called Ashcan School?
There are two suggestions about how the movement gained its name.
Firstly, some cite a complaint in the journal The Masses criticizing pictures of “ashcans and girls hitching up their skirts.” The comment amused Robert Henri and his artistic colleagues (who also described themselves as “Apostles of Ugliness”), and the name stuck.
A second theory argues the group’s name derives from a specific drawing by George Bellows. Titled Disappointments of the Ash Can, the artwork features three homeless vagrants peering into the contents of a dustbin.
Whatever the actual origin, the name is particularly fitting for the movement. Artists working in the style championed “art for life’s sake” with common subjects, including prostitution, street children, and boozy backroom bars.
This was in direct contrast to the concept of “art for art’s sake.” Ashcan artists (although mostly middle class themselves) sought to depict the reality of urban poverty in a rapidly industrializing nation.
While often used derisively at the time, the “Ashcan School” name was also a tongue-in-cheek reference to other artistic “schools.” It reinforced the artists’ irreverent take on classical rules and academic techniques.
Who started the Ashcan School?
Given the Ashcan School referred to a loose grouping of artists rather than a clearly defined artistic movement, there was no “official” leader.
Nonetheless, the painter Robert Henri is generally recognized as the group’s founder. Disenchanted with American Impressionism, Henri adopted a distinctly realistic (and at times brutal) technique to show the suffering of the poor. Paintings such as Snow in New York (1902) and The Laundress (1916) exemplify this approach.
Studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and graduating in 1888, Henri later worked in Paris and at the School of Design for Women in Philadelphia. Here, he befriended four illustrators in their early careers. This included William James Glackens, Everett Shinn, John Sloan, and George Luks.
Henri mentored the four artists, sharing a studio where they developed the artistic techniques and social conscience defining the movement. The group subsequently moved to New York in the early 1900s.
These Philadelphia men comprised the first generation of the Ashcan School. A second generation derived from Henri’s later New York students. Among these later artists, George Bellows remains the most famous.
Who was the leader of the Ashcan School?
While Robert Henri started the Ashcan School, one of its most famous later students was George Bellows. Given a George Bellows drawing possibly inspired the movement’s name, he’s frequently cited as a leading figure.
Described by the Columbus Museum of Art as “the most acclaimed American artist of his generation,” George Bellows moved to New York as a young man. Quickly becoming associated with Henri’s “The Eight” group of artists, George Bellows paintings of this period included Cliff Dwellers (1913) and Men of the Docks (1912). Both these paintings represent the harsh realities of life in New York City, as well as changing patterns of immigration and work and unemployment.
Nonetheless, paintings such as Stag at Sharkey’s (1909) exemplify the artist’s approach to representing everyday life as he experienced it. With quick brushstrokes, the immediacy and blurred movement of two fighters in the ring bursts into life. As well as a masterful painting in its own right, it offers a fascinating insight into society in early twentieth-century New York.
Who was involved in the Ashcan School?
Some of the most famous artists in the Ashcan School included Robert Henri, George Bellows, George Luks, Ernest Lawson, Maurice Prendergast, Arthur B Davies, and William James Glackens.
In addition to these names, one particularly famous artist stands out. Edward Hopper also studied under Robert Henri and is frequently cited as an Ashcan artist. Despite this, Hopper himself never embraced the Ashcan label. He once claimed his representations of New York featured “not a single incidental ashcan in sight.”
Considering works like Edward Hopper Nighthawks, however, it’s not hard to see why he’s counted amongst Ashcan artists. Hopper’s paintings are infused with realism and attention to detail prized by the movement. Particularly in works such as Apartment Houses (1923), Sunday (1926), and Chop Suey (1929), the loneliness and isolation of working-class urban life shines through.
What were the Ashcan School of artists best known for?
Artists from the Ashcan studio of art are best known for their depictions of the poorer neighborhoods of New York City. Despite this, they portrayed the city’s vitality and thriving nature as frequently as its darker sides. This resulted in a wide array of styles and subject matter.
Well-known paintings such as George Bellows’ New York or Everett Shinn’s View of the East River simply depict the city itself. Other artists, such as John French Sloan, foregrounded the city’s inhabitants. With paintings such as Sunday Women Drying Their Hair or McSorley’s Bar, everyday New Yorkers have monumental importance and presence. Today, the Ashcan artists' most famous subjects are bustling docks, busy city streets, and nightclub scenes.
Due to this massive variety of styles and topics, Ashcan artists documented the anxiety, confidence, and excitement evident in America's development into a global superpower. By drawing public attention to the hardship of poorer communities, they are also often linked with French realist artists such as Jean Francois Millet and Gustav Courbet.
Art reproductions from the Ashcan School of art
If you are searching for oil painting reproductions from the Ashcan studio of art, explore our unparalleled collection of replica artworks. From Stag at Sharkey’s to Robert Henri paintings and Edward Hopper Nighthawks, you’ll find museum-quality art reproductions to enrich your life and your walls.