What are you looking at?

Christine Stansell

New York in the late 19th-century never registered on anyone’s mind as a rival to London or Paris. But in the first two decades of the new century, it established itself as a pre-eminent metropolis for Europeans as well as Americans, an emblem of onrushing modernity which, for some, surpassed even Paris. ‘More than any other city in the world it is the fullest expression of our modern age,’ contended the cosmopolitan exile Leon Trotsky, who bided his time there for a few months in 1917. New York City had become a subject in its own right – newsworthy, sensational, visually entrancing.

It was the good fortune of the painters subsequently dubbed the ‘Ashcan School’ to arrive in the city just as this cultural ascendancy was beginning. These artists – George Luks, Everett Shinn, William Glackens, John Sloan and George Bellows – had all (Bellows apart) started out in the 1890s as newspaper sketch-artists in Philadelphia. Drawn together by the magnetic preaching of Robert Henri, a slightly older painter who had returned from art school in Paris to his native Philadelphia feverish with the spirit of Left Bank aesthetic revolt, they coalesced into a dissident brotherhood dedicated to an art which championed the contemporary and democratic elements of ‘real life’ and opposed the desiccated and imitative art of the establishment. Henri knew that the action was in New York – the major galleries and museums were there, as well as the National Academy of Design. He hoped for an all-out assault: ‘the big fight is on,’ he exulted, as the rest of his group, by 1904, followed and reconvened. In New York, they gained new recruits, including the young and brilliantly promising Bellows.

The realists saw themselves as a virile avant garde doing battle with a weak, effeminate and derivative American painting. Philadelphia had not provided the material with which to mount an assault, but in New York they found their great subject. They hit the news in 1908 with a well-publicised secession from the National Academy exhibition, pitched cheekily by Henri as a latter-day, American Salon des Refusés. Although the dissidents’ show received plenty of warm critical notice, public outrage at the ‘low’ subject-matter of some of the paintings – poor people, prostitutes, slummy street scenes – served the group as well or even better, casting them in the role of courageous revolutionaries.

Others in town were vying for the mantle of the avant garde, notably Alfred Stieglitz’s circle around Gallery 291, who were heavily influenced by Continental developments in painting. The realists sought something different: an American Modernist idiom shaped by native traditions of realism and fidelity to the particular and local. Over time, their enterprise would fail to win them a place in the Modernist tradition, while the impact of the 1913 Armory show – America’s first look at Post-Impressionism, Cubism and Fauvism – turned Stieglitz into an exemplar of the New York avant garde. Even at the time, a few critics complained about what seemed to be an idea of the ‘painting of modern life’ that was stranded between Impressionism and an emerging experimental art: ‘Surely it is not “revolutionary” to follow in the footsteps of the men who were the rage in artistic Paris twenty years ago.’ Never shown in Europe and seldom in the United States, these paintings – always interesting, sometimes splendid – have unfortunately been treated as the expression of a provincial aesthetic sensibility too unschooled in the transatlantic art scene to understand how passé it was to base an idea of avant-garde painting on now discredited notions of incident, narrative and figuration.

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