Art in the City: The Ashcan School

Sometimes we wonder how we got here. How did New York become the nexus for the art scene in the U.S. and subsequently the world? Well, it wasn’t until after the Civil War that artists began springing up in the city. While this had much to do with New York’s growth during the period, both fiscally and in population, it certainly also was due to the shift away from “pure” landscape painting, which up to the point was what most American art exemplified.

One of the most important figures in New York and American art history is Robert Henri. Born in 1865 in Cincinnati, Ohio he studied in Philadelphia and Paris before teaching in Philly again and then moving his instruction to William Merritt Chase’s New York School of Art in 1898 (the school was the beginning of what is now Parsons School of Design). Generally, any mention of the early New York art scene generates the names Stieglitz and Avant-Garde. Henri’s style vastly opposes both of these now more appreciated contemporaries.

Henri and his group, the Ashcan School-— a term coined later in the century — sought to depict urban living and to extricate and illustrate the details they found beautiful in the otherwise negatively perceived urban culture. New York, population booming from increased European immigration and at the beginning of the tenement culture, was the ideal location to observe and record the newly developing urban culture.

His portraits are considered his best works, though he also produced some cityscapes, as would many of his students such as George Bellows, John Sloan and Edward Hopper. He would employ generously paint-laden and deft brushstrokes to create intuitive images. Though his work and that of his followers is repeatedly underrepresented in the histories of New York and American art, his influence had an undeniable effect on the state of NYC art today.

Works by Robert Henri can be found in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, as well as a handful of galleries throughout the city. His book Art Spirit is published by Icon Editions.


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