This work by Charles Henri shows a child sitting on a chair, with a cigarette in his mouth

Three things to know about the Ashcan School

By Margie Fuchs

What’s in a name? Like Impressionism before it, the Ashcan School took its name from a disparaging newspaper critique. Repelled by the turn-of-the-century art movement’s gritty depictions of urban life, The Masses magazine derided the group’s work as nothing more than low-brow “pictures of ashcans and girls hitching up their skirts on Horatio Street” in 1916.[1] Although the group had already been active for eight years, it took the criticism in stride and soon began tongue-in-cheek referring to itself as the Ashcan School.

Jonathan Boos is proud to work with some of the most compelling works produced by Ashcan artists, including George Bellows’ Introducing the Champion (1912), currently on view at the Gallery. The Gallery is also honored to have worked with all of the paintings illustrated in this article. Learn more about the avant-garde movement and its impact on the evolution of American art with these three facts:

1. The “school” in the group’s name is misleading

First and foremost, the Ashcan School was not a school at all. It was a loose collection of like-minded American artists who supported Robert Henri’s credo “art for life’s sake,” rather than “art for art’s sake.”[2] Diverse in media and politics, these artists were urban Realists dedicated to recording New York City’s vitality – including its unseemly underbelly – as it was, rather than as they believed it should be. Their focus on unflinching documentation set the movement apart from the presiding trend of American Impressionism, which espoused refinement and idealism to audiences nationwide.

Henri was the leader of the movement. Educated at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the bold, lifelike style of Thomas Eakins, Henri “wanted art to be akin to journalism…he wanted to paint in the mud as the clods of horse-sh** and snow, that froze on Broadway in the winter.”[3] He encouraged his friends and students at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the School of Design for Women in Philadelphia to paint contemporary city scenes unfettered and unrestricted by the delicacies of genteel taste and sense of propriety. Four of Henri’s mentees, Philadelphia illustrators John Sloan, Everett Shinn, George Luks and William Glackens, picked up the mantel and began depicting the grit, grime, crowds and amusements of New York as never before. Their vivid imagery earned the group another infamous name: The Apostles of Ugliness.[4]

A landscape looking across the Harlem River toward New York City.
Ernest Lawson, American, 1873-1939. Harlem River, c. 1913-1915. Oil on canvas. 39 ¾ x 49 ¾ inches. The Roycroft Collection.

One point of clarification: The Ashcan School is not synonymous with The Eight, although the two are frequently discussed together. In 1908, Henri organized “The Eight,” a landmark exhibition at Macbeth Galleries in New York City named after the eight contemporary artists whose work was on display. Intended to protest against the exhibition policies and restrictive taste of the National Academy of Design (currently known as the National Academy Museum & School), the exhibition featured the work of Henri and the “Philadelphia Four” – Sloan, Shinn, Luks and Glackens – alongside pieces by Maurice Prendergast, Ernest Lawson and Arthur B. Davies. While the latter trio painted in a less realistic style, they believed in the show’s call for increased opportunities for artists nationwide. The exhibition received national attention and subsequently boosted the opportunities and sales for the featured artists.

2. The Ashcan artists depicted New York as never seen before

This work by Theresa F. Bernstein depicts passengers in an elevated train
Theresa F. Bernstein, American, 1890–2002. In the Elevated, 1916. Oil on canvas. 30 x 40 inches. Signed and dated lower right. Collection of the de Young Museum, San Francisco.

The artists of the Ashcan School sought to paint true to life, portraying the everyday hustle-and-bustle of the Big Apple as Gustave Courbet and the French Realists had done in Europe nearly a half century before. Many of the School’s works established the geography of urban life away from Park Avenue and New York’s gilded Upper East Side. Lawson’s Harlem River, pictured in section one, showcases an oversized cargo ship sailing around the top of Manhattan, on its way to or from one of the city’s bustling ports. With this choice of subject matter, Harlem River calls attention to the predominant industry of the city, and hints at its perpetual growth with the high-rises in the background. Loosely associated with the Ashcan School, Theresa F. Bernstein also examined modern transportation in her above work In the Elevated (1916). The painting captures the everyday activity of commuting via public train, which Bernstein herself did to get to her studio on West 55th Street.

L-R: George Wesley Bellows, American, 1882-1925. Head of Man with Red Nose, 1905. Oil on canvas. 26 x 19 3/4 in. Signed upper right. The Roycroft Collection; Introducing the Champion, 1912. Black crayon, India ink and collage on paper. 24 3/4 x 20 inches. Signed upper left. Private collection.

The Ashcan School also took a microscope to the people – particularly those in the middle and lower classes – making up New York City. Prostitutes, the homeless and street urchins, subjects deemed unsavory by the prevailing Academy, dominated the work of the School. George Bellows, the youngest member of the School, painted notable characters he passed on the street, such as the striking man in Head of Man with Red Nose (1905). In his figuration, Henri frequently focused on urban children, depicting their destitution with thick, gestural brushstrokes. In the portrait Volendam Boy with Cigarette (1910), seen as the lead image of this article, Henri sought to highlight the vitality and humanity of his subject while simultaneously suggesting the poverty and turbulence from which the child came. His somber color palette became a hallmark of the School, as its artists chose to not sanitize their subject matter or their depiction thereof.

A chorus of dancers performing against an elaborate set backdrop.
Everett Shinn, American, 1875-1953. Theatre Scene, c. 1908. Oil on canvas. 28-3/4 x 36 inches. Private collection.

Amusements can be found around every corner in New York, as much now as at the turn of the century. Shinn’s Theatre Scene (c. 1908) depicts an elaborate dance number from the perspective of an audience member, revealing all of the elements that make up a modern musical – extravagant costumes, detailed stage backdrops, an orchestra and a full crowd. Bellows is perhaps best known for capturing the thrill of the illicit sporting events popularized during the period. His 1912 drawing Introducing the Champion, seen above, directs the viewer’s eye across the chaotic boxing scene through the use of one dominant line, which runs from the left foreground, through the spectator climbing into the ring and up the left arm of the referee. Bellows’ thick, bold linework nods to his training as a commercial illustrator, a background he shared with many of the other members of the Ashcan School.[5] This linework emphasizes the individuality of the figures inside and outside of the ring, giving personality to a group so often seen as “the masses.”

3. The advent of Modernism led to the fall of the Ashcan School

The Ashcan School largely defined the American avant-garde for the first decade of the 20th century, until the 1913 Armory Show.[6] One of the pivotal moments in the history of Western art, the Armory Show introduced European modernists, including Marcel Duchamp, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, to American audiences. The provocative nature of the Ashcan School’s realism paled in comparison to the radicalism of Cubism, Expressionism and the Fauves and their work lost the edge it once had.

An outdoor leisure scene of figures lounging in a lush cove by the water.
Maurice Prendergast, American. 1858-1924. Cove with Figures. Oil on canvas. 27 x 33 inches. Private collection.

Pressing on, many of the School colleagues continued to paint. Sloan and Shinn worked for nearly 30 years after the Armory Show, continuing to infuse their works with the same creative vigor.[7] The group’s focus on urbanism, immigration and the conditions of the poor went on to inspire the Social Realist movement of the 1930s.

It is worth noting that the work of the Ashcan School corresponded with the rise of documentary photography and realist writers in the United States. As Henri and his followers were painting urban slums, Jacob Riis was photographing the tenements of lower Manhattan and Stephen Crane was writing about the squalor the urban poor.

Cover image: Robert Henri, American, 1865–1929. Volendam Boy with Cigarette, 1910. Oil on canvas. 26¼ x 20¼ inches. Signed, inscribed, and dated lower right.

[1] Ken Johnson, Ashcan Views of New Yorkers, Warts, High Spirits and All. The New York Times, Dec. 23, 2007.

[2] H Barbara Weinberg, The Ashcan School. In “Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.” New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.

[3] Robert Hughes, American Visions BBC-TV series (ep.5 – “The Wave From The Atlantic”)

[4]  Amy Dempsey, Art in the modern era: A guide to styles, schools, & movements. Abrams, 2002. (U.S. edition of Styles, Schools and Movements)

[5] George Bellows – Biography, National Gallery of Art, archived from the original on June 29, 2012, retrieved February 3, 2020.

[6] H Barbara Weinberg, The Ashcan School. In “Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.” New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.

[7] Ibid.