Understanding The Ashcan School of Artists in 6 Facts and 7 Paintings

The Ashcan School were a group of painters who pioneered one of the first art movements to originate in America. These 6 facts and artworks can help you understand them.

Sep 19, 2020By Truman Chambers, BFA Two-Dimensional Studies
ashcan school riverfront bellows
Riverfront No. 1 by George Bellows, 1915, via Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus


The Ashcan School was a loosely defined group of American artists working at the turn of the 20th century. Their work began in Philadelphia towards the end of the 19th century, but they are best known for the works they produced later, after moving to New York at the start of the 20th century. While the ranks of the Ashcan School are not strictly defined, Robert Henri is often considered to be the leading force of the Ashcan School of art, with some of the other most prominent members including John Sloan, George Bellows, Everett Shinn, George Luks, and William Glackens.


1. The Ashcan School Practiced A New Kind Of Realism

the coffee line john sloan
The Coffee Line by John Sloan, 1905, via Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh


The Ashcan School committed themselves to a redefinition of realism. However, this realism was pursued not necessarily by plain likeness, as in the works of Gustave Courbet and the early French realist painters at the start of the 19th century. Rather, for the Ashcan artists, realism was discovered in tactility; In their paintings, visual demarcation of the subjects and scenes is dissolving. The often awkward, sprawling spaces of cityscapes, interior scenes, and portraits alike in these works demonstrate that verism is not achieved by typical means.


In contrast, great attention is paid to the quality of light and mood in these pictures. This approach is exemplified in John Sloan’s The Coffee Line, where the titular line of workers, waiting for coffee in the early morning is nearly unrecognizable as such. Instead, Sloan is concerned with establishing a sense of place. Thick dabs of paint swirl at the bottom of the canvas: dirty snow matted on the city streets, reflecting the dim glow of the streetlamps.


The art of the Ashcan School proposes that an image which captures, if nothing else, the visceral response is more essential, more real than a studied and diligently rendered space. So then, while the Ashcan artists committed themselves to truthfully painting life around them, the rapidly brushed paintings communicate that truth primarily through immediate sensation and haptic appeal.


2. Ashcan Art Was Collectivist

stag at sharkeys george bellows
Stag at Sharkey’s by George Bellows, 1909, via Cleveland Museum of Art

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For the Ashcan School of artists, the bodies which occupy their pictures are not so much persons as presences. Movement of these bodies through space is communicated with severe impact, but the bodies themselves are essentially unknowable apart from the ambient sensation of presence. Consider in George Bellows’ Stag at Sharkey’s how the features of the boxers themselves are scarcely present, instead the focus is on the muscular brushwork which functions as the sensation of force and action in the painting. The only recognizable faces are minuscule, loose caricatures scattered in the crowd, which perform more like a suggestion of the presence of a great sea of persons than as a representation of any single individual.


While most of the Ashcan artists worked at least occasionally in portraiture, often sitting for one another in these instances, these portraits still evade the issue of describing an individual. The subjects of Ashcan portraits are almost invariably described without gestures or signifiers of character and personality. The sitter is typically stoic, centered against a dark background that eats away at the edges of their form. Little to no context is provided, meaning the viewer is much less able to neatly define the subject in these pictures than in almost any other examples of portraiture. As an effect, the portraits are instead understood as representations of a broader set of persons.


3. Ashcan Art Was About Everyday Life

cliff dwellers george bellows
Cliff Dwellers by George Bellows, 1913, via LACMA


The term ‘Ashcan art’ originates from a comment, derisively issued towards Robert Henri and his circle on account of their choice to paint and draw “pictures of ashcans and girls hitching up their skirts on Horatio Street.” The portrayal of a variety of people in the unfiltered environment of the city and the disregard for mediated beauty was radical. Paintings such as Cliff Dwellers by George Bellows capture seemingly unremarkable scenes of city life. However, the care taken in painting such a scene is an act of veneration towards a class of people often unseen in art.


This commitment to the every day, and specifically the lives of working people, can be traced back to the French Realists of the early-mid 19th century, who commonly painted scenes of farmers or other laborers. While the theme of the every day carried forward into Impressionism, the range of lifestyle which was represented became restricted to the upper class. In impressionism, common scenes included women in lavish dress lounging, or at their vanities, ballets, jockeys, boaters, and luncheons. This shift away from the subject of working people, which critics in France had described as vulgar in the paintings of the realists, towards the depiction of a higher class lifestyle, which was certainly more comfortable scenery for the patrons of the arts, was reversed in the work of the Ashcan artists.


4. Ashcan Art Was Journalistic

hester street george luks
Hester Street by George Luks, 1905, via The Brooklyn Museum


Many of the Ashcan artists worked as newspaper illustrators. Perhaps because of this association, the works of many of these painters take on a journalistic quality. Of course, Realist painting was born of a desire to record and communicate the truth of life. As Gustave Courbet wrote in the Realist Manifesto: “To know in order to do, that was my idea. To be in a position to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my time, according to my own estimation; to be not only a painter but a man as well; in short, to create living art – this is my goal.”


Clearly, Courbet was resolved to paint in a manner reflective of the time he lived. So, what set the Ashcan School apart was a willingness to reflect their surroundings without the same arbitration which earlier Realists had practiced.


Whereas earlier Realist painting was much more composed and focused, the canvases of Ashcan artists tend more to the messiness of the real. We see bustling streets, dim and uncertain interiors, all teeming with bodies piled over each other. This effect can be observed in George Luks’ Hester Street, a picture which seems to have no immediately discernible action or subject beyond the overwhelming crowd which extends across the picture plane.


5. Ashcan Artists Fought Academic Realism And Impressionism

laughing child robert henri
Laughing Child by Robert Henri, 1907, via Whitney Museum of American Art, New York


Robert Henri appreciated Impressionism during his training in France in the 1880s. He would, however, contemptuously refer to the style as a “new academicism” by 1895. By this time, Impressionism was well established in America as well, with painters like William Merrit Chase among the most famous and highly regarded in the country. The rebellion of the movement at its outset had vanished, as the Impressionists found mainstream acceptance, redefined as an apparatus of the academic painting they had initially fought against. 


While parallels certainly exist in the loose handling of material in the Ashcan canvases and those of the impressionists, the goals of the Ashcan painters were distinct and so their works diverged from Impressionism in several significant ways. The values of the Ashcan School are reflected in many ways across their work. The palette and use of color are among the most obvious expressions of this. Instead of the exaggerated color of Impressionism which preceded them, or the exuberant and arbitrary color of Fauvist, Neo-Impressionist, and Post-Impressionist painting which developed parallel to them in France, the Ashcan artists turned to a much darker, more subdued palette, explicitly inspired by artists such as Thomas Eakins, Edouard Manet, and Frans Hals. To pick just one of the many excellent examples across Robert Henri’s body of work, the portrait Laughing Child demonstrates this earthy palette, and the extensive use of black or near-black color in Ashcan art.


6. The Ashcan School Wasn’t Afraid Of Ugliness

the butcher cart george luks
The Butcher Cart by George Luks, 1901, via The Art Institute of Chicago


Though precedent existed for expressive, painterly flourish, nothing at the turn of the century rivaled the vitality and roughness of the Ashcan School’s canvases. The tolerance for expressive brushwork in movements like Impressionism was often due to the perceived capacity for beauty with such treatment. The looser style lent itself to the exaggeration and distortion of color and form, which was typically pursued to the end of aesthetic appeal.


The Ashcan style and process certainly overlapped with Impressionism in some respects, but the purpose of these choices served was quite different between the two movements. Vitality and honesty were major concerns of the Ashcan School, and so they painted with vigorous, rapid strokes to capture fleeting moments of interest in the restless city they inhabited. Whereas, in the academically assimilated Impressionism from the turn of the century, the Impressionist style had been effectively formalized into little more than an aesthetic preference. With their own rough, painterly style informing visions of city life entirely lacking the discerning pomp of Impressionism, the Ashcan artists were dubbed “the Apostles of Ugliness” by critics.

As a declaration of the Ashcan artists’ tolerance for ugliness both in subject matter and treatment, George Luks’ The Butcher Cart is a fitting painting to end on. Luks paints, with stunning directness, a piece of the unflattering infrastructure of the city. Though the image is as loosely rendered as any Ashcan painting, this roughness is, more than an obfuscation of the subject, a means of underlining it. The ugliness of the painting is becoming of the subject.

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By Truman ChambersBFA Two-Dimensional StudiesA painter and contributing writer from Toledo, Ohio. Truman graduated from Bowling Green State University with a BFA in Two-Dimensional Studies.