The Ashcan Artists: Dirty Urban Spectators Of Risk And Violence

From the so-called “Ashcan Artists,” I have chosen not representative, but my favorite works to share…

Many of the works of the Ashcan Artists portray a mass of spectators gawking at a few active souls performing for their benefit. There is also frequently violence or risk of injury at the heart of the piece. It is not unusual to show people at work– often the strange work of athletes and performance artists, but also the hands-on labor of dock-workers or other urbanites… Office work or fieldwork or other rural labors are not typically treated.

The individual takes center stage– often literally– with the Ashcan Artists. However, it is only the active soul, the entertainer of sportsman who looms large… Mere spectators or passers-by are usually made very small, with the individual becoming lost in the crowd. Many faces are half-rendered, with undiscernable features. Just vague shapes and blurry patches of color. Oddly, as in providing counterpoint, a figure in the crowd will turn and look straight at the painter, and thus, the viewer. Personally, I found this weakened the work’s true subject’s claim on our attention, and fractured the feeling of the piece. There was something comical about the us-turned faces that I felt subtracted from prime emotion or emotions otherwise generated by the painting.

Lastly, because of the crowded scenes — and in spite of being otherwise very different from each other– the paintings of the Ashcan Artists sometimes reminded me of the work of Seurat. Also some paintings– with their wine reds, and dark-oil hues, and round faces– put me in mind of Renoir.

Renoir– the dark-oil look, faded brushstroke look. Dark wine reds. People, sometimes with one member of the crowd look straight at the painter


William Glackens — March Day – Washington Square, 1912

William Glackens March Day

Uncharacteristically bright for the Ashcan Artists– although the wet sidewalk and the man’s folded umbrella indicate a recent rain. Purple and orange and yellow dominate, with some green; also uncharacteristically for the cadre, this work contains no spectators, performers, violence, or work; here Seurat’s promenaders meet Monet’s watery reflections; and Renoir figures collide with a Kadinsky backdrop.


Everett Shinn — Trapeze, Winter Garden, 1903

everett Shinn trapeze

I love the cool blue-grays or green-grays here; half the canvas is barely articulated at all, giving the three performers an isolated feeling. Also, the work is beautifully balanced– the lady glides like a low-flying peacock at the bottom the scene, her long legs flying out to the left, while the lithe woman near the top stretches her entire body back to the right, the lank man making a thin, connecting S between them.


Robert Henri — Cumulus Clouds, East River 1901-02

robert Henri Cumulus Clouds

A lesser work… Nevertheless, I enjoyed the hues of this sepia morning; the figures are small– some of them no more than mere splotches of white or brown; what I presume to be a ship in the background could just as easily be claimed a puff of smoke… The painter makes morning seem more like a damp, dirty thing than a bright and clear awakening.


William Glackens — Hammerstein’s Roof Garden, 1901

William Glackens Hammerstein's Roof Garden

I adore the color scheme of this one. Most of the scene is almost black and white — a green-leaning grey, filled with the typical spectators of life. The only living character is the woman dressed in blue. The gaze is drawn simultaneously both the woman and to the red umbrella she has left behind.


Everett Shinn — Cross Streets Of New York, 1899

Everett Shinn Cross Streets Of New York

The viewer almost falls forward into this scene; a sense of vertigo is nearly triggered by the extreme perspective of the extending, straight street.

Robert Henri – Snow In New York, 1902

Robert Henri Snow In New York

The minimalist brushwork is visible; the scene is black and white, and hardly articulated… nevertheless, it carries a charm.


Everett Shinn — Footlight Flirtation

Everett Shinn Footlight Flirtation

I love the rich, emerald green of this one; The foilage-like background and the round-faced, lovely female at the center of the painting are reminiscent of Renoir; excellent rendering of a stark background light against the turned face of the lady with the hat at the bottom-right.


Henri Regnault — Salome

Henri Regnault Salome

Not at all “Ashcan”– but an absolutely astounding, photo-real oil; and it doesn’t hurt the work that the subject is a beautiful woman of obvious panache.  The coloration also puts me in mind of Klimt.


George Bellows — The Knock-Out, ca. 1907

Perhaps my favorite Ashcan work. The limited palette offers brown, black, and off-white. One can almost feel the intensity of the strained muscles. The half-drawn face at the bottom of the scene stares strangely at us.

George Bellows The Knock-Out


Everett Shinn — Spoiling For A Fight

This one caught my eye because of its brazen use of white over most of the canvas– except for the figures in the middle of scene, which have been colored-in with primary and secondary colors.

I couldn’t find a copy of Spoiling For A Fight to post, but I like the following thickly outlined female form painted by Shinn, so I thought I’d end today’s post with that one. It’s done with a pleasingly limited and earth-toned palette…

Everett Shinn substitute

Source-book: Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists And Their New York by Zurier, Snyder, and Mecklenburg


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