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University of California Press
Picturing the City: Urban Vision and the Ashcan School / Edition 1

Picturing the City: Urban Vision and the Ashcan School / Edition 1

by Rebecca Zurier


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Picturing the City takes an innovative look at the group of urban realists known as the Ashcan School, and at the booming cultures of vision and representation in early twentieth-century New York. Offering fresh insights into the development of modern cities and modern art in America, Rebecca Zurier considers what it meant to live in a city where strangers habitually watched each other and public life seemed to consist of continual display, as new classes of immigrants and working women claimed their places in the metropolis. Through her study of six artists—George Bellows, William Glackens, Robert Henri, George Luks, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan—Zurier illuminates the quest for new forms of realism to describe changes in urban life, commercial culture, and codes of social conduct in the early 1900s.

Synthesizing visual and literary analysis with urban cultural history, Picturing the City focuses new attention on the materiality and design process of pictures. The author scrutinizes all manner of visual activity, from the pandemonium of comics to the mise-en-scene of early movies, from the mark of an individual pen stroke to a glance on the street, from illustrators’ manuals to ambitious paintings that became icons of American art. By situating the Ashcan School within its proper visual culture, Zurier opens up the question of what the artists’ “realism” meant at a time when many other forms of representation, including journalism and cinema, were competing to define “real life” in New York City.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520220188
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/06/2006
Series: Ahmanson-Murphy Fine Arts Bks.
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 418
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 10.00(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Rebecca Zurier is Associate Professor of the History of Art and Faculty Associate in the Program in American Culture at the University of Michigan. She is the author of Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and their New York (with Robert Snyder and Virginia Mecklenburg; 1995), Art for The Masses: A Radical Magazine and its Graphics (1988), and The American Firehouse: An Architectural and Social History (1982).

Read an Excerpt

UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS Copyright © 2006 The Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-520-22018-8


[It is] contemporary with a vengeance. It breathes of to-day, of to-morrow, and of Macy's every morning. JAMES GIBBONS HUNEKER ON WILLIAM GLACKENS'S PAINTING THE SHOPPERS, 1908

The term "Ashcan School" always irritated the people it was used to describe. Coined by an art critic and a dealer in the 1930s, it not only presented these artists as a formal organization, but also classified them as precursors to the socially concerned urban realists and American Scene painters of that troubled decade and as inheritors of an "American realist tradition" that reached back to Thomas Eakins. Along with this retrospective view came an appealing collection of myths. The Ashcan School artists were described as rebels against conformity, deeply humanitarian, committed to confronting the genteel tradition with "real life" and thereby revolutionizing American art. The 1908 exhibition Eight American Painters, which showcased the work of most of these artists, was elevated to a turning point in American art history. Such myths soon led to debunking, with critics claiming that their work was actually conservative and indebted to French Impressionism; their version of real life was sentimental and "euphemistic"; their social commitments were dubious, naive, or even opportunistic. Any revolution they may have started was quickly eclipsed by the Armory Show of 1913, which shaped the development of modern art in America.

Yet accounts of the Ashcan School artists as either inheritors or precursors of a specific tradition leave no room for the art's mixed messages. To begin to understand how these artists addressed urban, cultural, and representational concerns of their own historical moment, it helps to recall where they came from and how they established a reputation in the American art scene of their period.


For all its flaws, the name "Ashcan School" has stuck, and it still seems the easiest way to identify a certain tendency in American art of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The six leading members of the "school" knew each other well, exhibited together, and critiqued one another's work. Many more artists worked in a similar manner or experimented with it on the way to developing other styles. Reviews describing "the young American painters," "New Art Realism," or "the school of followers who go with [Robert Henri] to the tenements and alleyways to paint" suggest that contemporary readers associated a certain style and type of picture with a group of artists "whose emphasis has been laid upon the expression of life and character rather than the following of conventional and academic traditions" or standards of technique and ideal beauty.

Though inaccurate (they painted many different classes and places in the city), the sobriquet "Ashcan" was not entirely anachronistic: as early as 1906, Henri told an interviewer, "it takes more than love of art to see character and meaning and even beauty in a crowd of east side children tagging after a street piano or hanging over garbage cans." An even closer reference is found in Theodore Dreiser's novel The "Genius" (1915), in which the hero, Eugene Witla, is a young artist whose works and career were based on those of several of the painters Dreiser got to know in New York, including John Sloan and Everett Shinn. (This acquaintance helped to change Dreiser's taste in art from the aestheticism of his early criticism to support for more engaged pictorial realism.) After exhibiting paintings of New York City subjects, Witla receives a cutting review: "If we are to have ash cans and [fire] engines and broken-down bus-horses thrust down our throats as art, Heaven preserve us."

Like Dreiser's protagonist, the Ashcan artists negotiated between commercial and fine art and found their inspiration in the big city. They too were born in small towns, grew up with little exposure to high culture, and first demonstrated artistic skill by making drawings for family and friends. Some of the Ashcan artists studied drafting or were sent to art school early on, but most did what Witla did and went to work for the nearest big-city newspaper, where the demand for illustrated news, cartoons, and advertisements created positions for people who were skilled at drawing but who might not otherwise have considered themselves artists. (Dreiser's character moves to Chicago; William Glackens, George Luks, Shinn, and Sloan found jobs in Philadelphia.) For Shinn, Glackens, Luks, and Sloan, drawing offered an alternative route that led through the urban press to a fine-arts career. For all of the Ashcan artists, drawing formed a link between their work and the rhetorics of realism in the illustrated media.

In pursuit of stories, news artists like the fictional Witla learned to follow fire engines, prowl city streets, and sketch in morgues and courtrooms, then to rely on visual memory to work up their notes into drawings with great speed in the newsroom. For most of the Ashcan School, this experience provided their first artistic education. Many among them chafed at traditional academic methods when they began taking art classes in their spare time after having worked on newspapers for several years; more than one told stories of being expelled from class for refusing to draw from a plaster cast. Tiring of the journalist's life and the provincial art world in Chicago, Dreiser's Witla leaves for New York, the center of the magazine-publishing industry, in search of stimulation and more lucrative illustration assignments. Similarly, the Ashcan artists moved to New York around 1900 and supported themselves by drawing for magazines. The drawings and paintings they made for exhibition, like Witla's, preserved the techniques of the sketch reporter to depict the city with a "rawness and reality" that the narrator in The "Genius" deems "almost as vigorous as life itself." In the novel, conservative critics find Witla's art vulgar, but a few far-sighted supporters appreciate its "realism." The Ashcan School likewise received their share of vitriolic reviews and rejections from exhibitions at the National Academy of Design, for by traditional standards their technique lacked the appearance of skill and their subjects were not considered appropriate to high art.

Unlike Witla, however, the Ashcan artists did not work alone. Their careers intertwined, with friendships formed at Philadelphia newspapers continuing and expanding into larger social networks in New York. Many of their personal and professional associations revolved around the influential teacher and painter Robert Henri, who served as mentor to all the artists in the group.

Henri met several Philadelphia sketch reporters through colleagues at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts late in 1892, and his studio at 806 Walnut Street quickly turned into a meeting place for newspapermen and art students (including Glackens, Luks, Sloan, and later Shinn) disgruntled with the academy's teaching. The regular Tuesday evening gatherings there became known not only for their irreverent amateur theatricals, impromptu boxing matches, and all-night beer drinking, but also as a forum for discussing art and Henri's humanitarian philosophy. When a group of news artists and fellow part-time students quit the academy's evening drawing class in 1893, Henri helped them form the Charcoal Club, an alternative organization that sponsored unstructured life-drawing sessions, with Sloan as treasurer and Henri as chief critic. Later, Henri taught classes at his studio in addition to offering informal critiques for friends. After moving to New York in 1900, Henri continued to foster camaraderie among his students and carried on the tradition of the weekly open house. In this way he encouraged his student George Bellows to seek out and eventually exhibit with the older artists from Philadelphia who were already living in New York.

The future Ashcan painters credited Henri with convincing them to make art from the material they covered as news. As Sloan explained:

It was really Henri's direction that made us paint at all, and paint the life around us. [The American genre painters Winslow] Homer and Eastman Johnson and [William Sidney] Mount had painted the life around them, but we thought their work was too tight and finished. There were many other artists drawing for newspapers in Chicago, San Francisco, all the big cities; but they did not turn to painting. I feel certain that the reason our group in Philadelphia became painters is due to Henri.

Sloan's comparative reference to nineteenth-century genre painters identifies two defining characteristics of Ashcan School art. The first of these is its urban subject matter. Although nineteenth-century American genre painters like Johnson and Mount worked in cities and sold to an urban clientele, "the life around them" that they depicted was overwhelmingly rural. American Impressionists and Tonalists painted city views as architectural landscapes rather than emphasizing human incident. Sloan's identification of newspaper illustration as a source for the urban art he and others were producing in the late 1890s underscores the distinction between this art and the earlier genre paintings.

As an admirer of Édouard Manet and Walt Whitman, Henri believed that the artist must express his own time and place, and that beauty resides in the everyday. According to Sloan, Henri advocated "painting pictures" based on experience and was "not much interested in painting art." In effect, Henri encouraged every artist to be a metropolitan reporter. He sent his students in New York to visit pool halls, restaurants, and other sites described in the urban press. The idea of the artist finding subjects amidst the daily bustle of the city recalls Charles Baudelaire's celebration of the Parisian sketch reporter Constantin Guys as the archetypal "painter of modern life," but for Henri, the artist's task went beyond the recording of fashion and appearances from a distance to plunging into urban "life" itself.

The second defining characteristic identified by Sloan's comparison is more subtle. The "tight and finished" quality of Mount's work, as Sloan described it, can be seen in the static poses, detailed rendering of clearly defined objects, and polished paint surfaces of The Painter's Triumph (1838, fig. 3). In contrast, Sloan and the other Ashcan artists sought to convey a sense of movement and spontaneity through the abbreviated, sketchlike handling associated with news illustration. Whereas Mount used oil paint to create the illusion of three-dimensional objects in space, in Sloan's Hairdresser's Window (plate 1), paint and the object depicted fuse in a single, bold brushstroke, which serves more as a notational (jot-it-down) device than a representational one. A similar technique animates Bellows's painting New York (1911, plate 2), where strokes become bodies or lettering. The Ashcan artists found this style better suited to their vision of the offhand encounters and dynamism of a modern city. The lack of finish broke down aesthetic distance by inviting the viewer to complete the image. They shared this interest in fluid brushwork and informal gestures with Henri, who considered the act of painting to be a direct encounter between both painter and subject, and painter and canvas. Henri urged artists to work rapidly and energetically, like a sketch reporter: "do it all in one sitting if you can. In one minute if you can." He too condemned art he found too "tight," declaring that "a thing that is finished is dead."

This hasty, painterly execution is also quite different from the realism of Eakins (see figs. 48, 98). Though the artists themselves acknowledged the older painter from Philadelphia as an inspiration, his work served more as a moral example than as a working model. Eakins too had dedicated his career to recording contemporary subjects, but concentrated on portraits of heroic individuals from among his own circle of professionals, athletes, and art students rather than the commercial environment or the urban crowd. His approach to vision and representation involved the careful scrutiny and painstaking rendition of a fixed object so that the act of viewing a painting repeated the artist's process of disciplined study. There is little overt humor in Eakins's art.

The distinction between Eakins's approach and that of the younger artists is evident in Sloan's Chinese Restaurant (1909, plate 3), based on a scene the artist observed in a Sixth Avenue eatery near his apartment. As with many Ashcan works, both the subject and the formal structure of this painting depend on acts of urban, public looking rather than examination in the artist's studio. It presents a woman dressed in black, at the center of a decorated room, observed by men at an adjacent table. Whereas Eakins described carefully the texture of objects and the subtle tonalities of human flesh, Sloan used a thick stroke of paint to indicate the red plume of the woman's hat, which repeats a color in the garish decor and the rouge on the woman's cheeks. His thoroughly contemporary subject referred to an ongoing controversy. Then, as now, interpreters tried to "place" this woman by analyzing visual evidence. Turn-of-the-century New Yorkers regarded Chinese restaurants as places of dubious respectability, and the central figure's flamboyantly feathered hat and heavy makeup probably marked her as a prostitute. (A streetwalking character from the contemporaneous play Any Night was identified by exactly those attributes [fig. 4], and the Chinese restaurant, with its lowlife denizens, was such a commonplace that one figured in a tour of New York for thrill-seeking sightseers in the comic film Lifting the Lid [Biograph 1905].)

Yet Sloan's image goes beyond the popular stereotype or Eakins's individualized studies to engage the viewer in more socially complicated forms of looking. He framed the picture as if it were a cinematic mise-en-scène, using costume both to provide information about his characters and to organize the visual composition. The viewer, in turn-like the audience of a movie or the observer in a city-must decipher visual clues. The prostitute's black dress and hat contrast with the restaurant's heated color scheme to isolate her at the center of a fulcrum, balanced by male figures to her left and right. Her plume and her makeup, indicated with smears of the same red paint, call attention to her face and identify her trade.

The painting's architectural setting creates an intricate network of looking that makes the woman at once dependent on and in control of the glances of the men around her. She could be both a seductive puppeteer pulling strings to manipulate the others and a marionette governed by an unseen hand. Red-lacquered moldings surrounding white curtains frame the woman and connect her to the other people in the room, in effect drawing all of them into a friezelike visual and narrative relationship linked by a chain of interlocking hand gestures. To the left, her oafish companion ignores the ongoing drama, while to the right, two well-dressed customers look up to watch. They are engrossed by the suspense of the woman's teasing an attentive cat: a piece of food in her hand tantalizes not only the animal and the men, but the painting's viewer as well.

The woman is well aware of being looked at: she composes herself with self-conscious gestures, aided by the artist, who has made her finger repeat, in reverse, the curl of the cat's tail. The painting's composition places the figure perfectly in a room designed to match her costume. She makes the picture, while the picture seems to assist her in her work. Picture and prostitute collaborate, in effect, to orchestrate the viewer's gaze-and in this setting, attentive interest takes on the extra suggestion of sexual desire. Rather than condemn the prostitute, as an earlier generation would have done, or regard her as either the victim or the symptom of a social problem, the casual tone of the image presents its subject in a matter-of-fact way, then implicates both viewer and artist as admiring onlookers.

We have here, as in so many Ashcan images, a particular kind of attentiveness: one that acknowledges the rapidly shifting, anonymous nature of sensation and social relations in a modern city, yet seeks to isolate meaningful moments snatched from within the flux. Rather than give the viewer over to a state of perpetual distraction (as modernist writers would do), Sloan's painting brings us into a moment of temporary connection. It thus assumes more coherence and purpose within the random encounters and events that take place in the city than either Baudelaire's figure of the flaneur or later modern artists would look for. Yet it is worlds away from Eakins's mode of intense scrutiny.


Excerpted from PICTURING THE CITY by REBECCA ZURIER Copyright © 2006 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents



1. Another Look at the Ashcan School
2. Seeing New York: The Turn-of-the-Century Culture of Looking
3. A Walk through the City on Paper: The Tradition of the
Mobile Observer

4. Robert Henri and the Real Thing
5. The Reporter’s Vision: Everett Shinn and the City as Spectacle
6. The Cartoonist’s Vision (Part 1): William Glackens and the
Legible City
7. The Cartoonist’s Vision (Part 2): Bellows, Luks, and Urban Difference

8. The Storyteller’s Vision: John Sloan and the Limits of
Visual Knowledge

Conclusion: The Legacy of the Ashcan School
Selected Bibliography
List of Illustrations


What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Engages in the most valuable kind of interdisciplinary criticism, one whose breadth of attention is united with deep, discipline-specific close reading of technique."—Modernism/Modernity

"Makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the Ashcan school."—Art Bulletin (Caa)

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