The group of artists known as The Eight, led by Robert Henri (1865–1929), formed in 1907 in protest of the academic tradition. Members included Arthur B. Davies (1862–1928), William Glackens (1878–1930), Ernest Lawson (1873–1939), George B. Luks (1867–1933), Maurice B. Prendergast (1858–1924), Everett Shinn (1876–1953), and John Sloan (1871–1951). Traditional academic training stressed drawing objects of beauty and was based on classical art forms. Inspired by common street scenes and urban life, these “Ashcan” artists rejected the refined themes of mythology and literature that were no longer pertinent in the Industrial Age.
In the 1890s Henri was an instructor at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where his students included Glackens, Luks, Shinn, and Sloan, all of whom were successful newspaper illustrators. They worked together as artist-reporters covering major news developments in Philadelphia. Henri introduced them to the portraits of such seventeenth-century Old Masters as Frans Hals and Diego Velázquez and encouraged them to “go out into the streets and look at life.” Davies, Lawson, and Prendergast joined the group for the groundbreaking Exhibition of Painters at New York’s Macbeth Gallery in February 1908. Despite negative criticism, the show was a success, attracting crowds and generating sales.
The terms “The Eight” and the “Ashcan School” cannot be used interchangeably. The name Ashcan School was invented in 1934 by Holger Cahill and Alfred H. Barr Jr. to describe some of the members of The Eight and other artists who chose to paint undesirable subject matter, such as scenes of streets that were dilapidated and disorderly. Despite the controversy surrounding their motivations, this rebellious group of painters would eventually receive acceptance and were regarded as leading modernists at the time.
After Glackens moved to New York in 1896, he began a successful career as a commercial illustrator of urban life. Gradually, he also began to paint life in the immigrant and working-class neighborhoods. Washington Square South was Glackens’s home from 1904 to 1913, and he painted more scenes of the square than any other subject except the beach near Bellport, Long Island. The Washington Square paintings were done in the winter, when the artist delighted in using paint to describe the thick mud, deep snowdrifts, and watery slush on the sidewalks. Once a fashionable address, it was by 1910 a diverse neighborhood, typical of the city of New York, which fascinated Glackens. Among the favored details that appear in his Washington Square series are the boy with the red sled, the green bus or trolley, and the woman in the flowered hat. The harsh reality of the scene is tempered by the obvious delight the artist took in executing the painting.
Henri began his career as a commercial illustrator in Philadelphia. He was a charismatic teacher and influenced many of the most highly regarded artists of his day. Henri, the leader of The Eight, expressed in his portraits the vitality he found in humanity. The artist traveled extensively searching for individuals of different nationalities whom he felt captured their culture’s essential spirit. Henri was a teacher and often took his New York art class to Madrid for summer study. Of the Spanish Girl of Segovia, Henri advised in his book The Art Spirit (1930): “Paint that over there as though the shawl itself were alive. Put a certain expression in the shawl. Try to give the sensation of the activity of her shoulders, the life in her.” Henri’s rapid brushstrokes and vivid color harmonies further accentuate his subject’s energy and passion for life.
Shinn’s interest in the theater and in the circus was in part an interest in the glitter, spectacle, and artificiality of a world and profession whose objective is to please, but it was also an interest in the loneliness that makes the entertainer so poignant. In this painting, Edgar Degas’s influence can be seen in the placement of the entertainer and the men in the pit. Degas’s informal viewpoints, oblique perspectives, and cut-off compositions frequently inform Shinn’s later work.
This street-level view (below) of the underside of the Ninth Avenue “El” likely depicts one of the stations near Beal’s apartment. Before painting a subject, Beal often drew on-the-spot sketches to familiarize himself the spirit of a place. “When one has known a subject for a long time, when one is familiar with all its aspects, when one has sought for what makes it beautiful, what gives it movement—then it is time to paint it,” he observed.
Beal’s impressionistic rendering does indeed capture the ceaseless movement that invigorates city life. His figures are carefully arranged dabs of color that lack precise detailing. Yet within this blur of activity, Beal offers small vignettes that humanize the anonymous crowd: a woman posts a letter, a top-hatted gentleman steadies his friend on the slippery walkway, a worker clears snow with a broom.
Beal produced a number of paintings that emphasized New York’s technological and industrial growth. (The elevated subways were the city’s first mass-transit system and the envy of other emerging metropolises in the country.) Whereas some artists of the day, such as the members of the Ashcan School, focused on the poverty and alienation that could be found within the city, Beal saw the beauty and vitality that existed there as well.
Have you seen the paintings by The Eight at the NBMAA ? What did you think of them? Do you have a favorite? What do you think of their subject matter? Do you know of any other artists that deal with the same subject matter? What do you think about contemporary artists who choose to depict gritty reality as opposed to beauty and ideals? Are these “gritty, realistic” paintings, in fact, beautiful in their own right? Now that there is nostalgia about the subject matter, does that make the paintings more appealing?