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The Ashcan School Painted the American Working Class

In the years before the Great Depression, the “Ashcan” school of painters rejected the cultural norms of the art market. It opted instead for an American realism that took its inspiration from the lives of dock workers, street vendors, and immigrant families in the country’s modernizing cities.

New York (1911) by George Bellows. (National Gallery of Art)

At the turn of the twentieth century, many Western painters sought to enhance the visual world through glorification. Portraits of politicians and socialites instilled pride in their moneyed subjects, while landscapes and narrative works told epic tales across massive canvases. In the United States, the industrial revolution altered the landscape of every major city, with skyscrapers rising rapidly and workers pressing their noses further to the grindstone.

Bourgeois painters were ill-equipped to portray urban development and its effects on everyday people, but one tight-knit group of working-class artists captured the spirit of this time by going against the mainstream. These artists, commonly known as the Ashcan school, had cut their teeth as political cartoonists during the rise of investigative journalism. Working in newspapers brought them closer to this rapidly industrializing social environment, instilling a sense of journalistic presence. They served the press in ways the camera would just a few decades later, leading their art from postimpressionism to documentary realism.

Everett Shinn, Robert Henri, and John Sloan, c. 1896. (Archives of American Art)

From the late nineteenth century through to the Great Depression, the Ashcan artists pushed back against bourgeois idealism in modern art. For them, painting a city’s population as it appeared in daily life — immigrant families, dock workers, street vendors, and performers all together — was an act of rebellion. Their proximity to leftist organizations, publications, and historical figures would inform much of their subject matter, and they helped popularize a painting style that blossomed into the political force of social realism.

Led by influential artist and educator Robert Henri, the Ashcan school brought together painters of socialist and anarchist tendencies — such as John French Sloan and George Bellows — as well as progressive painters like George Luks, William Glackens, and Everett Shinn. They got their nickname from a complaint within the socialist publication The Masses, where some of them worked as illustrators. A staff member lamented that the artists were publishing too many “pictures of ash cans,” a reference to their unsentimental depictions of city life and nontraditional proletarian subjects. Far from disheartened, the artists positively identified with the critique and the name stuck.

While critics and collectors all but abandoned the Ashcan school after the 1913 “Armory Show,” their story sheds light on documentary art before the Works Progress Administration, and how truth in art became a burden on a market bedazzled by spectacle.

European Origins

Realism was a political art form in nineteenth-century Europe. French painters like Charles de Groux and Gustave Courbet — the latter of whom was involved with the Paris Commune — pushed labor and poverty to the forefront of their work. A British newspaper called the Graphic, meanwhile, was recruiting social reformist painters like Hubert von Herkomer and Luke Fildes into political illustrations. Photography had not yet developed into a widely distributed medium, meaning that these artists defined working-class aesthetics.

Snow in New York (1902) by Robert Henri. (National Gallery of Art)

At the same time, upper-class Republican artists like Édouard Manet faced controversy for painting untraditional subject matters in a traditional realist style, as in Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (1862–63), leading impressionists like Paul Cézanne, Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, and Berthe Morisot to demand a new criterion for judging contemporary art. This was the discourse that Robert Henri explored while living in Paris in the late 1880s. Studying at the Académie Julian and École des Beaux Arts instilled a classical education, even while he experimented with color and theme.

Upon returning to Philadelphia in 1891, Henri started teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and then one year later joined the faculty at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. His studio at 806 Walnut Street became a local hangout for artists, including Sloan, Shinn, Luks, and Glackens — who were known as the Philadelphia Four for their illustrations in Philadelphia-based newspapers such as the Bulletin, the Press, the Record, and the Public Ledger. Henri believed that artists should represent equal parts personality and social force, traditionally embodied through Manet and Goya, and embrace the everlasting bond between the artist and the commons. Socializing with artist-reporters gave Henri a sense that fine art could cross into the realm of social reform, much as it had in Europe a few decades earlier.

From Philadelphia to New York

Henri and his compatriots turned away from impressionism as social conditions dictated the necessity of change. Muckraker journalists like Ida Tarbell, Jacob Riis, and Lincoln Steffens had popularized a genre of investigative journalism that exposed poor living conditions in city slums and corruption among powerful capitalists. Concurrently, Canadian artist James Wilson Morrice had introduced Henri to pochade sketching, which could be done on tiny wood panels that fit into coat pockets, allowing him to capture scenes spontaneously while out in the city.

After a few years living between Philly and Paris, where he managed to sell a few paintings to the French government, Henri and his wife Linda relocated to East 58th Street in Manhattan. While teaching at the New York School of Art, his pupils included Edward Hopper and Josephine Nivison (who would become husband and wife) as well as George Bellows and Stuart Davis. Bellows had traveled from the University of Ohio in 1904, the same year that Shinn and Sloan also relocated to New York. After a brief stint in Cuba covering the Spanish-American War, Luks soon followed to work for the New York World with Glackens, who also contributed to Scribner’s Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post.

Cumulus Clouds, East River (1901–2) by Robert Henri. (Smithsonian)

The artists spent much of their free time wandering downtown Manhattan and frequenting pubs like McSorley’s and the Haymarket. Paintings from this time depict the variety of life unfolding around them. Luks’s Hester Street (1905) shows Jewish immigrants selling clothes along the Lower East Side street. Sloan’s Easter Eve (1907) illuminates a young couple picking flowers from a storefront in the dead of night. Henri’s Cumulus, East River (1901–2) depicts an empty shipyard at dusk, with a few pedestrians near the waterfront taking in the incandescent skyline.

Central to New York City’s growth were performance spaces, which had recently been upgraded with electric lights. In Keith’s Union Square (1902–6), Shinn portrays a lone dancer in a shimmering gown sashaying in the spotlight. In Hammerstein’s Roof Garden (1901), Glackens highlights a performance on the Victoria Theatre’s rooftop stage, which provided outdoor entertainment on hot summer nights around the time that women were first allowed to attend shows.

Hammerstein’s Roof Garden (1901) by William Glackens. (Wikimedia Commons)

Despite the seemingly innocuous subject matter of these paintings, the Ashcan artists were regularly rejected by prominent institutions of their day, perhaps due to their politics. A fatigue with institutional conservatism pervaded the crew, particularly after Luks was rejected from the National Academy of Design’s 1907 spring exhibition. By that time, Luks was known for his satirical cartoons critiquing the ills of monopoly capitalism, making this rejection feel as personal and political as Henri’s own rejections by the Salon des Indépendants in Paris.

Nonetheless, some prominent New York collectors took an interest in their paintings. William Macbeth, who owned Macbeth Galleries on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, curated a 1908 exhibition simply titled Eight American Painters — featuring Henri, Sloan, Shinn, Luks, Glackens, Maurice Prendergast, Ernest Lawson, and Arthur B. Davies. The show was a smash hit among collectors — including Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, whose purchase of four paintings led to the beginnings of the Whitney Museum collection.

Breadline (1900) by George Luks. (National Gallery of Art)

While buyers were drawn to the works, the critical reception was more mixed. Some saw their work as too challenging; others were dismayed at the loose draftsmanship and dreary subject matter. Painters like John Singer Sargent and Edmund C. Tarbell had risen to fame for their pristine representations of idyllic nature scenes and bourgeois social life. In contrast, Luks’s paintings of breadlines and child mine workers reorient the viewer to people often left out of American art, drawing comparisons to the social reform photographs of another contemporary, Lewis Hine.

Painting the New City

The success of the Macbeth exhibition briefly projected the Ashcan artists to the forefront of the American avant-garde in the early 1910s. These years were among the most prolific for many of them, and they set their sights on the changing infrastructure of Manhattan. Paved streets covered dirt roads while sleek skyscrapers rose above tenement buildings. The golden age of railroads led to New York’s first subway line, which stretched along Broadway from City Hall to 145th Street in Harlem, and early automobiles replaced horse-drawn carriages. Their paintings of the developing metropolis, vast and populist, broke class divisions and focused on vitality.

Houston Street (1917) by George Luks. (St. Louis Art Museum)

Ashcan painters observed the emerging middle class alongside the working class with heads held high, contrasting popular Victorian-era paintings that showed urban spaces debilitating the people living in them. Shinn’s centerfold illustration for Harper’s Weekly shows commuters in long coats crossing Broadway covered in snow. An iconic landscape painting by Bellows, simply titled New York (1911), shows the construction of Madison Square in Manhattan. Crowds of pedestrians traverse the old city in the foreground, with new skyscrapers standing tall in the distance — an impeccable depiction of the changing city before it became a financial epicenter.

Immigrants arrived in droves from Europe and Asia, and black migrants from the Deep South headed north to escape racist Jim Crow laws. Employers reduced wages as the city population increased, leading workers into more cramped living arrangements and unstable working conditions. Luks captured pushcart peddlers along a busy Houston Street during an outdoor carnival in 1917. Bellows’s sprawling Cliff Dwellers (1913) shows residents of the Lower East Side on a summer day, poking their heads out of windows and hanging clothes on crisscrossed laundry lines. Along the foreground, children play on the sidewalk as commuters cut across dense traffic. Shadows against tenement buildings add dimension to the overall composition, making the bustling street appear to stretch endlessly.

Cliff Dwellers (1913) by George Bellows. (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

The Ashcan artists attempted to uplift the simple charms of city life, and only Sloan’s Carmine Street Theatre (1912) depicts an actual ashcan. Sloan once claimed that landscape and realist contemporaries, like Winslow Homer and Eastman Johnson, were too stringent and “finished” in their painting style. This explains, at least partially, the particular postimpressionism of their most well-known cityscapes. The artists’ philosophy was thoroughly anathema to prevailing twentieth-century aesthetics, which made their work all the more radical for its time. They brought art down to the commons at a time when lofty, aristocratic ideals were guiding commercial artists into the exclusive halls of bourgeois institutions.

By 1913, however, the tide would turn as the Armory Show opened the United States to a new generation of European modernists. Bellows and Henri helped Davies organize and curate this iconic exhibition, which first introduced much of the American public to Marcel Duchamp, Henri Matisse, Vincent Van Gogh, and Georges Braque. After years of trying to break out into the mainstream, the Ashcan artists were overtaken in the spotlight by cubism and abstraction. Though European modernism did predominate after the Armory Show, some of the best — and most outwardly political — work of the Ashcan artists appeared after that time.

Anarchism and Socialism

Henri quit the New York School of Art after a disagreement with its founder, prominent impressionist William Merritt Chase, leading him to start his own school and join the Art Students League. He also taught classes, along with Bellows, at the Ferrer Center (or Modern School). Henri and Bellows both advocated for the individual potential for perfection through free expression, which led them into anarchist circles. Henri painted two portraits of Emma Goldman, an early proponent of the Ferrer movement, but they were destroyed by a family member in the 1930s. Bellows, too, was briefly a member of an anarchist arts collective called Lyrical Left, which was described as “a loose coalition of cultural radicals living in New York City” who “dreamed of changing the world with pens, paint brushes, and new publications.”

The Menace of the Hour (1899) by George Luks.

While Sloan’s earlier paintings exposed subtle class tensions — such as Gray and Brass (1905), which contrasts the self-satisfied attitudes of a nouveau riche family with the loosely painted grouping of New York’s lower class at rest — his work gradually became more overtly socialist. In 1911, he assisted Dutch immigrant Piet Vlag in founding the Masses, a graphically innovative magazine that published journalism, poetry, fiction, and art. Sloan welcomed contributions from Henri, Bellows, and Luks along with well-known cartoonists like Art Young and Boardman Robinson. Their illustrations and designs appeared alongside essays by the likes of Max Eastman, Dorothy Day, Upton Sinclair, and John Reed. Though the magazine only ran for six years (it was shut down by federal prosecutors for publishing articles against World War I), the Masses became a flagship for radical periodicals in Greenwich Village, succeeded by the Liberator and the New Masses.

On the front cover of the June 1914 issue, Sloan illustrated a scene from the Ludlow Massacre that accompanied Eastman’s article titled “Class War in Colorado.” Amidst a wall of fire, a miner holds a dead child in one arm while firing a pistol out of frame, with corpses of a mother and child at his feet. At the time of the massacre, the Colorado miners were striking for more than six months and would likely not have worn a traditional miner’s cap. Nonetheless, there was indeed a day-long gun battle during which state militiamen torched the strikers’ tent colony, resulting in eleven children and two women dying of asphyxiation.

The onset of World War I also led Sloan and Bellows to respond to the growing conflict in Europe in their illustrations. The British government had just released the Bryce Report, which detailed alleged acts of brutality committed by the German Army. Sloan protested the escalating violence and was deferred from military service after running for New York State Assembly with the Socialist Party. A particularly grueling protest sketch shows a soldier dragging his own entrails up to a seated capitalist who holds out a medal to him.

Bellows, who was at that point known for painting prizefighters, depicted scenes of brutality in a series of lithographs. Many were based on allegations, except for Village Massacre (1918). The German Army executed more than six hundred civilians in the French village of Dinant, and Bellows depicted corpses strewn across a field with villagers mourning and black smoke billowing. No soldiers appear in the frame, other than the leg and saber of a fleeing soldier at the left edge. Bellows grew so fond of this practice that he installed a lithograph machine in his home and continued producing politically charged lithographs after the war.

The Ashcan of History

The Ashcan artists’ lifetimes roughly stretched from the end of the Civil War through World War II, with the exception of Bellows, who died at forty-two in 1925. Their politics were shaped by the Progressive Era, when Americans took pride in industrial growth paired with social reform. They continued to paint after the Armory Show, and Sloan and Shinn would live the longest, until 1951 and ’53, respectively.

In the context of their time, the Ashcan artists were pretty subversive. In a 1949 essay for the American Quarterly, Milton W. Brown writes that they “were concerned with social problems, yet today in our eyes their art seems not at all revolutionary or radical, lacking as it does the pointed propaganda which became so much a part of the social art of the thirties. But in their day a simple state of fact concerning the poor, with however much added romantic flavor, contained within itself the implications of social reform.” Brown also laments that the absence of a critical tradition had confined them to “colorful documentation of city life,” with little analysis of their politics. A lack of historical context can obscure how Henri’s teachings and portraits inspired artists like Alice Neel to paint pictures of communists, or how Sloan’s illustrations helped establish new aesthetic traditions for American socialist magazines, which are experiencing a resurgence today.

The City from Greenwich Village (1922) by John Sloan. (National Gallery of Art)

World War I and the rise of European modernism expedited the Ashcan artists’ political development, but museums have largely depoliticized their legacy since the 1960s. Many of them are lumped together as foundational American realists. If one were to adhere to this narrative, one might miss other radical elements in the work — for example, the fact that Bellows was portraying nude men and shirtless boxers at a time when doing so attracted homophobic backlash, or that Emma Goldman once described Henri as “an anarchist in his conception of art and its relation to life.” It also obscures the ways in which transgressing the norms of the art industry risks isolation and a pox on one’s legacy in the halls of powerful museums.

Henri’s book, The Art Spirit, also remains an inspiration among students of all art disciplines. In it, he connects what he takes to be the social instinct toward labor with the individual creative impulse. At the time, he was writing for students who struggled to find places to exhibit as titans of industry monopolized the gallery space, a struggle that continues today. A loose patchwork of aphorisms and painterly wisdom, the book points to the necessity of historical materialism in artmaking. Just as Marx argued that “all history is but the continuous transformation of human nature,” so too did Henri believe that all art is the continued transformation of human expression.

Pennsylvania Station Excavation (1907–8) by George Bellows. (Brooklyn Museum)

“Know what the old masters did,” he advised. “Know how they composed their pictures, but do not fall into the conventions they established. These conventions were right for them, and they are wonderful. They made their language. You make yours. They can help you. All the past can help you.”

Edward Hopper brought the Ashcan style further into stardom, nonetheless distancing himself from its political and thematic elements. Hilda Belcher, a student of Bellows and Henri, would go on to advocate for civil rights and women’s suffrage in her paintings. Others, like William Gropper, who helped Sloan found the New Masses, would turn more radical in producing anti-capitalist illustrations.

Today, the politics of the so-called Ashcan “school” remain obscure and undervalued by the institutions and museums that decide which works are to be celebrated, and which are to be passed over. But this rich chronicle of working-class life a century ago still demands to be seen.