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leading article from issue #21

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Ash Can to Soup Can

the story


In 1892 a number of artists gathered in the studio of Charles Grafly in Philadelphia. These artists included among their number, Robert Henry Cozad (aka Robert Henri), William Glakers, George Luks, John Sloan and Everett Shinn. The object of the meeting was to discuss and make a firm commitment to creating paintings from scenes from everyday American life. This was a stand in reaction to the romantic landscapes and other European centered subject lines. It was a major attempt to create an American Art, and in ambition they wouldn’t be the first nor the last manufactured national art revolution that painters initiated to change their contemporary art world.

Robert Henri generally took the lead in this and future meetings of the newly formed group, his passion came directly from his admiration of Thomas Eakins, an English artist that Henri discovered when he spent time in the UK. He had returned to the USA in 1891 and wasted little time in rallying his fellows to take up the banner of the ‘Reality in American Art.’ The Studio on 806 Walnut Street Philadelphia became known at a later date as the spiritual home of the the group, who were initially christened as the ‘Group of Eight’ and later as the better coined phrase “the Ash Can School.”  That name derived from the subject matter that the painters concentrated on. Their dogma was summarized by the powerful statement…

“…the subject can be as it may, beautiful or ugly.

The beauty of the work of art is in the work itself.” 

And so it was that the belief in painting the ‘real American city life’ began in earnest.              These works took the slum housing areas and their residents, coal miners and assembly line workers and treated them as heroes of a new dynamic country setting out its stall to become the most powerful and, in reality, imbalanced society, where the American dream could be chased and achieved – given the right sort of breaks. It was perhaps a sort of ‘unearthing the fools gold syndrome’ that these painters wanted to bring to the attention of the public? Or perhaps they wanted to elevate and encourage the ordinary working man and woman to greater heights? However their belief in the overall dogma  of the work would not be shaken nor moved from its format, that is until another more powerful American Art took control. As we shall see later on in this article.

Some of the Ash Can artists, Glackens, Luks and Shinn for example, were termed as Newspaper Artists Reporters, this entailed them rushing to scenes of accidents and making fast sketches that would support the written reports in the newspaper editions. 

This ‘day-job’ gave these artists not only an income, but also a discipline that enabled them to catch the movements of people fast which gave then a super training and an became an  advantage when sketching action for their paintings. However, by 1900 the letterpress, lithographic and gravure printing processes were perfected and photographs could be reproduced quick faster and more ‘eye-catching’ for the newspapers readers and the Artists job were cut.

An interesting offshoot result from Glackens day job, who was regarded as one of the best Artist Reporters. His reputation had enabled him to move from Philadelphia to Pulitzers New York World and on further to McClure’s magazine for whom he covered the fighting in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. In 1912 it was his good fortune to be sponsored for a once in lifetime opportunity by Doctor Albert C. Barnes (a childhood friend).   

The ‘Doctor’ had made a personal multi-million dollar fortune from the patent by his company (AC Barnes) of the antiseptic drug Argyrol (US patent 1902) and had contracted Glackens to find and purchase Art for him. He supplied Glackens with a budget of 20,000 dollars and paid all expenses for him to go to France to buy original art. Glackens acquired paintings by, Renoir, Degas, Van Gogh, and Cezanne. These paintings formed the base of the Barners Foundation Collection at Merian, Philadelphia. And were of great influence in the USA. Although perhaps an annoyance to the Ash Can School of painters as they glorified European Art and not their own. The European connection was further provided by another original Ash Can member George Luks. He also travelled around the cities of Europe, studying Art and sleeping where he could, often outside.  On his return to the USA he is said to commentated that …

“…I’d been a pupil of Lowenstein, Jensen, Gambrinus and some Frenchman, from whom I never learnt anything – excepting for Renoir, who is great anyway you look at him.”

Luks’s supported himself as a cartoonist for the “New York World” which became renown for its “funnies cartoon strip.” He was an extra ordinary character and for him life was a stage on which he played his games. His style was cavalier and the ever ebullience attitude to living lead to his untimely death. In 1933 at the age of 66 his body was found in a doorway of building underneath the elevated railway tracks in Manhattan. Here George sums up his attitude to life and painting in the USA.

“A child of the slums will make a better painting than a drawing room lady, who has been gone over by a beauty shop.”

Statements of anti-elite-social status were coined by many of the Ash Can painters, which were quite deliberate and targeted to annoy the higher social classes of the American Cities. In the 1900’s the tradition of artists having communist leanings was, and perhaps still is, a strategy to gain favour with the masses. That is until the artists start to acquire a following of wealthy collectors, perhaps. Then extreme left wing politics are often placed in parenthesis and anti-capitalist words are spoken much more softly and only in dark corners perhaps under the influence of alcohol.

In todays world the place to gain favour of the masses by citing pro or anti-Governmental and pro or anti-establishment rhetoric towards society in general, is of course Twitter, which in reality no-one really pays any attention to, apart from those ‘Twits’ who are addicted to self engagement, anonymously abusing people and spreaders of unproven gossip. And the same could be said in 1902 because the Ash Can school became ‘admired’ not for their political beliefs, statements or political dogma, but because they produced some damn good paintings. Robert Henri managed to establish a school in New York and brought the members of the Ash Can into it, slowly but surely as each artist  moved one by one to NYC from Philadelphia. Henri also invited George Bellows, Glen Coleman and Reginald Marsh, all of whom were firm believers in the Realists Revolution (Ash Can) and who then became the second generation from the original group of eight. 

The Ash Can School became ‘popular’ in as much as by 1905 the Impressionists had become popular. Within a short time as in the case of Europes impressionism a little less than a decade. And later the Fauve lead the charge into a new vision of colour and form, that were soon established in Art Museums and sold on the open Art Market for exponentially growing amounts of hard cash. In the USA it was a slower transition to a ‘New American Art, but it started with a bang a result of the energy of the Ash Can painters.

Read part two and part three and the 80 page magazine online for only £5