ART FROM THE ALLEYS
When the 20th century began, America was a collage of rags and riches. Tycoons in top hats strode the streets, stepping around beggars and bums. Buildings stretched toward the sky, soaring above streets strewn with garbage. One percent of Americans owned half the nation’s wealth, while “the other half’ lived in tired tenements. In his novel Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow summed up the age.
The population customarily gathered in great numbers either out of doors for parades, public concerts, fish fries, political picnics, social outings. . . Women were stouter then. They visited the fleet carrying white parasols. Everyone wore white in summer. Tennis racquets were hefty and the racquet faces elliptical. There was a lot of sexual fainting. There were no Negroes, there were no immigrants. . .
Fueled by money and fashion, American art reveled in pretty paintings of Gilded Age glamor. And then, as the new century loomed, a handful of painters began to see art in America’s human ash heaps.
For nearly a decade, John Sloan and Everett Shinn had walked the streets of Philadelphia, never seeing them as a canvas. Magazine illustrators by profession, the two had gone each weekend into the countryside searching, Sloan remembered, “for a piece of nature that looked like someone else’s picture.” Their teacher demanded more.
Robert Henri (pronounced “Hen-rye”) was as adamant as he was charismatic. Young artists, the dapper Henri insisted, should “paint the everyday world in America just as it had been done in France.” The fact that Philadelphia was not quite Paris never seemed to bother Henri. Artists, he said, should have “a Dickens-like interest in the people and their life.”
In 1897, Henri began inviting his best students to meet at his studio. They put on plays. They discussed “the art spirit.” They read Whitman and Emerson. And they painted as no American had painted before. Titles alone sketch their scenes. “Three A.M.” “Sixth Avenue Elevated After Midnight.” “Hester Street.”
Success came slowly. Single paintings hung in galleries or art institutes. When they moved to Manhattan, critics noticed the “Art Anarchists” and their “revolutionary creed.” “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,” one critic wrote. “There must be a knowledge of human nature, human motives, and above all, sympathy.”
But juried exhibitions rejected their works. The National Academy of Design snooted at them. Finally, late in 1907, the artists decided to put on their own show. Coughing up $50 each, they rented a Fifth Avenue gallery. They called themselves “The Eight.”
The Eight came from eight distinct directions, but a biographical collage could apply to each artist: “Born to working class parents, talent recognized early, moved to Philadelphia. Enrolled in Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts, met Robert Henri. Moved to Paris, admired the earthy works of Manet, came home with a mission.” As Doctorow’s Ragtime noted, “Apparently there were Negroes. There were immigrants.”
On February 3, 1908, at the Macbeth Gallery across from the New York Public Library, the simply titled “Exhibition of Paintings” opened to the public. The show ran for just nine days. Critics were divided, some citing “a distinct feeling of nausea,” others hailing “a new and distinctive movement toward Americanism.” But for nine days, the gallery was packed. Sales soared. The show soon traveled, taking the streets of New York and Philadelphia on tour across America.
By the time The Eight were labeled “The Ashcan School,” their work had been supplanted by Matisse and Picasso, but their legacy lived on. Forced by artists, by novelists, by muckraking journalists to look — really look — at its gutters and grit, America awoke from the Gilded Age. The first income tax, the first minimum wages, the first municipal reforms were softening the razored edges of modern life.
Robert Henri continued to paint and teach, his students including Edward Hopper, Joseph Stella, George Bellows, and others. John Sloan turned political and joined the staff of The Masses, making it one of the most stunning magazines in American history. William Glackens helped Alfred Barnes gather paintings from Europe. . .
Another legacy came through the patronage of a young sculptor and heiress in Greenwich Village. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney bought several works by The Eight for her private collection, which later jumpstarted the Whitney Museum of American Art. Above each work in that wonderful museum should be posted the advice of Robert Henri to his students:
“Be a master, not like anyone else, but like yourself. You were meant to be.”