Notes and editing by Andrew Saul (My father, Warren E. Saul, admired artists who drew what they saw, and drew it well. "If you want to paint," he said,"you first have to know how to draw." The fact that he was a professional draftsman may have influenced his thinking. In the mid 1960's, as husband and father of three, he left his job at Eastman Kodak Co. to go to college and earn his bachelor of arts degree from the University of Rochester. He would later do the same thing again, gaining a Masters degree in Art History. Warren Saul was particularly interested in a little-known and probably even less appreciated group of American realists called, sometimes derisively, the "Ash Can School." This is a term paper he wrote on the subject in 1967. I recall that it got a "B." The Ash Can Group and Realism
Warren E. Saul
December 18, 1967 Copyright 2005 Andrew W. Saul. All rights reserved. The years from 1890 to 1917 in American history embrace a period known as the Progressive Movement. They are also the years which record the trials and tribulations of a group of American artists to be later called the Ash Can Group but who, at the time, were the independent realists. Their way(s) of life equate with the tenor of the times. At the turn of the century Americans could look back over three generations of progress unparalleled in history. (1) The growth of national wealth had been astounding. In agriculture and in industry the American people had advanced with giant strides, and progress in science and invention had been no less spectacular. Also, the ideal of free public education had been realized; the ideal of a free press had been maintained. In literature, art, and science, Americans had made contributions of enduring value, and proved themselves worthy of their opportunities. The nation was fabulously rich, but its wealth was gravitating rapidly into the hands of a small portion of the population, and the power of wealth threatened to undermine the political integrity of the Republic. In a land of plenty there was never enough food, clothing, and shelter for the underprivileged, and cyclical depressions, apparently unavoidable, plunged millions into actual want. (2) Against the crowding evils of the time there arose a full-throated protest that was neither unrealistic nor ineffective. It is this protest which gives a peculiar character to American politics and thought from approximately 1890 to World War I. It demanded the centralization of power in the hands of a strong government. It found expression in a new and intelligent concern for the poor and the underprivileged. It called for new standards of honesty in politics and in business. It formulated a new social and political philosophy. This protest can be studied in political debates and campaign speeches, in laws and constitutions, in editorials, in the treatises of sociologists, historians, economists, and philosophers in fiction, drama, and poetry, and in the voluminous writings of the journalists
who came to be known as "muckrakers." (3) Revolt became the nature of the day. At the basis of this revolt was the recognition by the lower middle class of America that the phenomenal economic growth had resulted in the multiplication of gigantic monopolies - railroads, steel, coal, oil - and that these trusts were extending and consolidating their power in political life. (4) At the same time, American labor was growing more militant both on the economic scene with the growth of the I.W.W. (International Workers of the World) and on the political scene with the increase in the strength of the Socialist Party. This progressive revolt of the nineties and the early years of the new century was clearly in the American tradition. It had a distinctly moral flavor, and its leaders - Bryan, LaFollette, Roosevelt, Wilson - were moral crusaders. It was liberal rather than radical; optimistic rather than desperate. Its accomplishments, both social and legislative, were impressive and it laid both the philosophic and the legislative foundations for the New Deal of the 1930's. (5) This was also a time for great changes in the American economic life. Such mechanical innovations as gasoline and electrical power were the basis for new methods of production. New economic forms affected culture in many ways; they led to mass-production education, mass-production journalism, and mass-production art. The great growth of newspapers and magazines enlarged the field of commercial and journalistic art. It is no coincidence that the great majority of the realists both in literature and in art had their start and developed their styles as newspapermen. (6) From an historian's vantage point this is how it appeared. Now we shall examine the background in the field of art to see which factors were at work attempting to bring about change at the cultural level in general, and to American painting specifically. At the pinnacle of American art during the first decade of the 20th Century was a group known as The Ten (Frank W. Benson, Joseph DeCamp, Thomas W. Dewing, Childe Hassam, Willard Metcalf, Robert Reid, Edward F. Simmons, Edmond G. Tarbell, John Henry Twachtman (replaced by William Merritt Chase after Twachtman's death in 1902), and J. Alden Weir) which combined the genteel school of Boston genre painting of Tarbell and Benson, the more "radical" Impressionist stream of Twachtman and Hassam, and the academic tradition of Chase. (7) We boasted that our landscape school was the best in the world, when, some believed, it was only an echo of the long-dead French tradition of Barbizon painting. Some artists went abroad - and comparing themselves with European academicians they were not unjustified in judging themselves the equals of what they considered the best that Europe had to offer. America was impressed by the glamour of its most recent artistic heroes of the late 19th Century like George Inness, Tom Dewing, John LaFarge, George Fuller, Homer Martin, Alexander Wyant, Abbott Thayer, and George Brush. Added to these were the renowned expatriates, whose reputations were considered with some pride. James McNeill Whistler's fame, John Singer Sargent's amazing international success, and Mary Cassatt's stature as an equal among her French colleagues seemed only further to establish America's artistic maturity. That Whistler and Cassatt had forsaken their heritage for another was more proof that there were no national boundaries in art than that our own culture was too narrow for their comfort. Although many of these painters lived and worked in the 20th Century, a new group, dominated by the brushwork of Chase and Frank Duveneck, deriving from Manet and Munich, and the Impressionism of Twachtman, J. Alden Weir, and Hassam was in the ascendance. (8) At the same time, opposed to these newer Impressionist tendencies stood the pseudo-classicists. Academic honors were showered upon such perennial prize winners as Edward W. Redfield and Charles W. Hawthorne. American art was led by an array of technically proficient nonentities. Of the now greatly revered trinity of American art, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, and Albert P. Ryder, still working at that time, only Homer had achieved official recognition. Even Thomas EJkins painted for himself and whatever effect he eventually had upon American art came second-hand through his faithful disciple, Thomas Anshutz, the deacon of the realist movement. Also at this time was the Academy, whose academicians taught of progress as an extension of the tested virtues of the past. The new concepts of science which were revolutionizing our ways of living and thinking merely served to bolster their own special notion of progress. Artistically, the Academy was an agglomeration of many tendencies. It included disciples of the Barbizon school of landscape painting, slick portraitists in the tradition of Sargent and Chase, remnants of the Dusseldorf genre school, the "brush wizards" of Munich, students of French academic painting, Impressionists, and the American advocates of the grand manner of classicism and Renaissance painting. Its standard of judgment was technical proficiency, a scheme which left little for a vital art. (9) Organizationally, the Academy was just as great a brake upon American art as it was artistically. Its self-perpetuating membership contrived to stifle all nonconformism through a rigid system of election of members. The letters "N.A." were a mark of distinction - to most artists.
The museums were still not primarily interested in American art, or, when they did buy, were guided by established academic reputations. Native art, with but few exceptions, was being ignored. And, there were few free artistic forums where an unknown or unconventional artist might be heard. Intellectual life in America was in ferment. The big cities (e.g. New York and San Francisco) were infused with new waves of immigration. The standards of thought and behavior were not those of the American hinterland. Economic, social, cultural, and moral questions were all mixed together. Bohemianism, an intellectual revolt against the confines of established society and resulting in the creation of an intellectual community within that society, was at once a refuge and a weapon in the revolt of American art. Eventually most adherents migrated to New York, which offered greater literary and artistic opportunities. The radical artistic tendencies within this ferment grew out of two sources, the earlier being the native school of realism led by Robert Henri, and the later modernist movement from Paris with Alfred Stieglitz as its first American prophet. The realists were the first, in the early years of the century, to challenge established authority in art. The "Renaissance" in American letters and American art during the early years of the 20th Century was the work of the younger men who made up our realist tradition in literature and in art; and this growth was the artistic expression of a general upheaval of the times. Among the artists who, during the era from 1870-1913, led a decisive effort to develop American art was a group of painters known as "The Eight": eight individuals who at one point in their careers all exhibited together. In order to gain recognition in their native land they had to be teachers, organizers, propagandists, and financiers. They were not just artists. We live today (1967) in the aftermath of cataclysmic discoveries and events; The Eight lived during the inception of those events. The facts you grappled with then, at the turn of the century, were comparatively crude; most problems were real, not imaginary. No matter where you came from or what your profession, you felt life was moral. If you rebelled against the existing order of things, as the Eight did against the prevailing modes of art, you rebelled as a part of society. Your mode of revolution was reform. Victory was possible! Newspaperman and newspaper artists had recognition. In major cities, newspapers were cultural centers that could give rise to the school of literature, criticism, and art. In Philadelphia, the artists John Sloan, William Glackens, George Luks, and Everett Shinn were working on the Press as illustrators. They also studied art. Thomas Eakins was well known. The role of Thomas Anshutz, the one who carried out Eakins' aims, becomes more important because Anshutz (1851-1912) became the link between Eakins and the Eight. Robert Henri was a friend of the young illustrators and their number-one encourager. Henri's emphasis (as was Eakins') was on the use of direct painting with the brush to reproduce or interpret an immediate impression of reality, making pictures of life.
These young men were rooted in American life and in the provincial experience that formed their identity and after visiting Europe (except Sloan) sailed back. It wasn't long before they moved to New York. The essence of the cosmopolitan intelligence in New York City was expressed in the person and writings of James Gibbons Huneka (1860-1921), who gained eminence as a critic of art, music, and the theater through his columns in the New York Sun and other papers. He was the first to introduce to public attention in America such painters as Cezanne, Matisse, and Edvard Munch. His role was that of defender and encourager of the artist, attacking the forces of conservatism which refused to recognize the merits of new thought and new art. The core of his merit, which made him a chief link between the new art of Europe and the new art of America, was his ability to accept a contradiction of elements with a gain rather than a loss of clarity and taste. (12) Other artists were arriving or starting careers in New York at that time, each seeking recognition. Outstanding, and representative of the diversity among them, were the three artists who were later to join Henri: Maurice Prendergast, Ernest Lawson, and Arthur B. Davies. These three were directly stimulated by the art of Europe. So it was these three, together with the four newspaper illustrators, that joined Henri to form the Eight. Now that we have these artists together they will be introduced (in alphabetical order) through a series of brief commentaries. Arthur B. Davies began his career as a mechanical draftsman and magazine illustrator. A show at Macbeth's, after a trip abroad, assured his success. He was a prime organizer and president of the Armory show, and was partly responsible for the inclusion and selection of modern European art in that exhibition. William Glackens stressed the aspects of big city life at the turn of the century, but his paintings are quiet, thoughtful, structurally sound and of excellent draftsmanship. Renoir was the major influence on his work. Robert Henri, after moving to New York, became the spokesman for his immediate friends. His ideas, his teaching, and his magnetic personality put him in that position. He stressed the value of being direct and the use of self-expression, and in his time this took courage. He was a fine painter, but he was an outstanding instructor. Ernest Lawson was a pupil of Twachtman and Weir, he adapted an Impressionist technique and palette to delineate the wooded outskirts of New York City. He was, perhaps, as powerful a painter as Prendergast, or Davies, but does not seem to match them in originality. George Luks seems to be something else. The people in his paintings are serious, expressing their character by striking a pose. His art has been paraphrased as an early gasoline automobile of 1908: heavy, high, solid and ungainly, not quite perfected, every explosion in the cylinders an event, but of undeniable handsomeness and character in its own right. Maurice Prendergast began as a sign painter-illustrator and frame maker. He studied in Paris and admired Cezanne, and had also come under the spell of the City of Venice. His world was the world of playgrounds and parks. Everett Shinn was attracted to the atmospheric spectacle of people enjoying themselves, particularly at the theater. He painted scenes strongly influenced by Degas and Lautrec. John Sloan found it difficult to move to New York in 1905, and did so with mixed emotions. But each sight of human activity and pleasure had a meaning that everyone has felt during his first few months in the big city, both the lifting up, and the loneliness. His paintings are built on a solid foundation of emotional release. These eight artists, so diverse in temperament and technique, were an outstanding representative fraction of hundreds of talented and ambitious artists who were gathered in New York at the turn of the century. These particular ones gained a special notoriety because they bonded together and provided leadership by making a declaration of independence from the conservative world of the museums and the National Academy. "This one exhibit of the Eight in February of 1908 created a furor, and, while it gave those among them who needed it no financial security and created as much understanding as it did esteem, it set a momentous precedent and established the individual American artist as a creature who demanded and deserved respect. The Eight aggressively defended American art against the perennial forces of conformity." So said the New York World on
February 2, 1908. The press was gratifyingly mixed in its opinions. Those in favor applauded it more for its demand of freer exhibition space than for the quality of the paintings themselves. Town Topicssaid "Vulgarity smites one in the face. Is it fine art to exhibit our sores?" The Sun remarked that Luks' posterior of pigs were "genuine porkers, pink, dirty, and black. (13) The revolt against the pale estheticism of second-generation Impressionism was touched off, as we have seen, by an exhibition of eight American Painters. The Eight were united only by their friendship, for there was no common point of view of style; and they only exhibited together this once. Yet the impact was such as to make it a landmark. Its significance lay in the fact that these artists were warm, courageous human beings who restored self-confidence and joy of life to American painting. (14) The success of the Eight shook the National Academy, if not to its foundations, at least to the ground floor. When the Academy's spring exhibition opened, the New York Times ran the headline: "New spirit seen at the academy" and commented that the show deserved "more than passing notice. It is by far the best that the institution has held in many years - the Henri, Glackens, Lawson group have been given a wall to themselves." (15) The Eight, individually and collectively, were to be leaders in the battle for independent art for many years. The core of the Eight was a group of five artists destined to become the Ash Can Group. "Ash Can School " did not become current usage until the middle 1930's, although Art Young had uttered it in 1916, expressing a dislike for a picture in which ash cans figured. (16) They were the Philadelphia newspaper artists: Glackens, Luks, Shinn, and Sloan, and the "outsider" Henri. They have also been called the "Fiery Five," "The Revolutionary Black Gang," and the "Apostles of Ugliness. (17) The darkness of their pictures earned for them the "Black Gang" nickname probably because of a lavish use of black, and also because their studios were not well lighted. Some have said they were a throw back to Rembrandt and Goya, (18) but we can probably disregard this bit of fantasy. Robert Henri was their leader, teacher, and inspiration. He took a commanding view of the contemporary situation and defied popular taste; he proclaimed the greatness of Whitman, Eakins, and Wagner. Henri was the greatest single influence upon John Sloan who, as we have been told, became the best of the group. This influence was an introduction to the work of Daumier and Gavarni and their artistic descendants, Toulouse-Lautrec, Steinlen and Forain. As American as Sloan's style seems, there is no denying its dependence upon the 19th Century European tradition of graphic art. (19) Henri also had exposed Sloan to the works of Velasquez, Hals, Rembrandt, Manet, and Whistler. Sloan "became an "incorrigible window watcher" and the back windows of the attic studio in West 23rd Street afforded many a scene that appeared in his work. (20) To illustrate how these artists were interested, and sometimes involved, in the welfare of the country and her affairs, Sloan ran on the Socialist ticket for the Assembly in 1912 and in 1914 for a judgeship. Eventually the five from Philadelphia moved to New York. The city was to present a challenge to Mr. Henri and his buddies. They were laughed at, but also listened to, reminiscent of the Impressionists of France who had previously defied the Academy in Paris. The Ash Can Group's attack was upon the false world of glitter. "Plunge into life" was advocated by them. This is why their show of 1908 so shocked the city. It is also, perhaps, why it drew so many visitors. They were busy forging a link in American art, a link that had to be forged. Yet the importance of which was not recognized at the time and is only, perhaps, today being appreciated. Someone had to provide a bridge between the academicians and the modernists. We should remember that while the independent realist painters were at work, another art that based itself upon realism was also at work: photography, specifically, in the person of Alfred Stieglitz. Therefore, before we consider The New York Exhibition of Independent Artists of 1910, we will look at the man who did for photography what the Eight did for painting. Stieglitz opened up a directness in subject matter. He freed it from the shackles of Victorian sentimentality. In March of 1908 Alfred Stieglitz opened his "291" Fifth Avenue rooms, exhibiting work of the new Paris schools for the first time in America -- and rivaling the show of the Eight. Stieglitz was born in New York but was sent to the Berlin Polytechnic to study mechanical engineering. He dropped engineering and studied photo-chemistry under Vogel, and conducted a series of experiments in optics and chemistry. Stieglitz developed an interest in literary realism and naturalism, whose founders shared his interests in science. Emile Zola was his favorite, and Zola happened to be an enthusiastic amateur photographer. While reading Zola, Stieglitz began to think of photography in terms of art as well as science and emphasized the "personal touch." Zola stressed "personal expression," and both had the same thing in mind. From this point on, Stieglitz sought to photograph those aspects of nature which had aesthetic meaning for him. When he returned home in 1890 he discovered the city anew. He found meaning in unfashionable and unexplored aspects of city life: the rainy nights, the ferry boats and their passengers, the railroad yards, and the skyline from the harbor. His photographs of these things realistically captured, as did much of Zola's fiction, the sights, rhythms, and moods of the city. No one has ever referred to this as his "Ash Can Phase" but it certainly seems to so. After all, he was a realist, and an independent one the same as his painting counterparts. By 1902 he had begun to alter his pictures to the point where he became more and more concerned with beauty for its own sake than with realism. Stieglitz became the medium through which the modern art of Europe was first introduced to the American scene. In April of 1910 the New York Exhibition of Independent Artists took place. This time it was not just the Eight but the work of many independents that was exhibited. It was an opportunity for the younger painters to show their talents and to express themselves. Robert Henri's point of view should be considered. He believed that the freedom to think and to show what you are thinking about, is what an exhibition stands for. Every act exhibited should hear from the young as well as the old. He explained that it was an independent exhibition because it is a manifestation of independence in art and of the obsolute necessity of such independence. These words sum up his opinions:
"I have been asked if this independent exhibition will even become a permanent organization. I have not the slightest doubt but what the idea will go on, but I have no interest whatever in forming it into a society. The thing that interests me in this is the idea of it, the idea of independence, the idea of encouraging independence and individuality in study and the giving of an opportunity for greater freedom in exhibition. (21)
There remained one more exhibition (1913) in which the realists were to play an important role: the Armory Show, or, more formally, the International Exhibition of Modern Art. This time their role was a passive one because the outcome was the demise of realism and the birth of modernism in America. The Ash Can School and the other realists were interested in American art and not simply the American artist. It is clear that these realists envisaged the Armory Show as an exhibition of American art that would stir the country to a recognition of its artistic resources. But this was not to be. As the French modernists captured the lion's share of publicity and sales, even though the critics defended the American artists against the "intruder," the bewilderment among these men increased. For them the great success was a hollow victory. The real victor was modernism. It also meant that the Armory Show dethroned Henri as the leader of the American painters. This then is the story of the independent American realists and their battle for recognition.It is also the story of how they fit into the history of painting in America. It is not the history of the Ash Can School per se, nor does it glorify these "rebels." An attempt has been made to show the interrelation of this group with others because by itself, it could not have stood; in fact, it would never have been formed. The formation of the group was brought about through necessity. Originally, the objective was to write only about the Ash Can Group, but it became apparent that this small school could not be separated from the whole of American painting. Its importance to us is that it was needed to complete the picture of painting and art history. No one school, no one era, no one man can stand by itself or himself. Each is dependent upon another. That is what it is all about. Footnotes:
Morison and Commager, American Republic 1865-1950, 354
Morison and Commager, American Republic 1865-1950, 355
Morison and Commager, American Republic 1865-1950, 356
Brown, American Painting, 6
Morison and Commager, American Republic 1865-1950, 357