Editor's note: The following 1975 essay was published on August 23, 2004 in Resource Library with permission of Thomas Daives, New Canaan, CT. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact Mr. Daives by writing to the author at 58 Beacon Hill Lane, New Canaan, CT, 06480.


Art in America: 1825-1975

by Thomas Davies



Urban Reality

1908 - 1940


By the first decade of the 1900's, impressionism had become fully absorbed into academic circles and was now commonplace; considered by some, in fact, to be too conservative. A group of young artists were now emerging that had a completely different background, they were seasoned big city newspaper artists who knew and saw a totally different side of life. They reported urban reality -- dark city streets, dirty slush and snow, the docks and waterfront, drunks and cheap bars and theatres -- all this was a new reality, a total revolution against the lyrical charm of impressionism, its sentimentality, genteel vision, and sweet pastel colors. Rejected by the academies of the day, they held their first joint exhibition together in 1908 where, "The Black Gang" as they were called, received a new name for their approach to art, "The Ash Can School". The critics noted that any subject was considered fit to paint -- even ash cans.

The Ash Can School inspired several other artists of the period to a similar viewpoint. The spectacle of urban life and its intensity provided a never ending, source of subject matter to portray. Stylistically, their approach to painting was still impressionistic, although perhaps darker in coloring. Their revolution was more against subject matter and viewpoint than technique. To them art was life and the artist was supposed to paint exactly what he saw for a more realistic presentation of human condition.



Many New Directions

1913 - 1950


If the effect of the 1908 show or the Ash Can School was considered jarring -- then a mere five years later another exhibition in 1913, called The Armory Show was a complete explosion on the American Scene. This huge show of the most advanced painters in France and America was the first major exposure to such innovators as Gauguin, Picasso, Matisse and Duchamp. America was seeing the Post Impressionist, fauvist, abstract and cubistic art for the first time. The shock was immense and the reaction was violent and condemning by the public and critics alike, but the influences were here to stay. Shortly after this show, the dream of a rational and sensible world was finally shattered altogether with the outbreak of World War I.

From this time forward the art, as well as the life of America, split into many directions. While there were numerous experiments with different means of artistic expression. and many new "isms" as they were called, there still remained a steady and continuing belief in realism although it often took different forms and at some points in time it was "out of fashion" and at others, like today, highly in fashion. It is upon artists that clung to the realist tradition that the remainder of this exhibition will focus. These are the painters whose work continued after the radical influences of the Ash Can School, the Armory Show and the post World War I era. For many of these artists, the cities' and life's growing complications held no fascination; they preferred the natural beauty of landscapes and seascapes and a more rural or country way of life. Perhaps they could be accused of being ultra-conservative in the midst of an era of innovation and experimentation. But today their outlook and way of life is undergoing a new appraisal and appreciation as people are seeking a simpler and perhaps more meaningful life style with a greater focus on the outdoors and our very precious natural resources.



Focus on Realism

1950 - 1975


The last section focuses upon contemporary artists. It is certainly not a complete representation of the diverse types of work being done today in America. It is also difficult to discuss because of the lack of historical perspective and critical appraisal of the significance of today's artists. However, the dedication, skill and potential for achieving significance for each of these artists is not questioned. And, as was stated in the beginning, it is through their eyes, hands and interpretation that future generations will see our history and way of life today. Certainly that is challenge enough.




The past 150 years of America's growth and way of life have been rapid, and often colorful, reflecting many diverse influences and pressures. Through America's artists, this evolutionary process is brought into sharper perspective, giving us all a greater understanding and appreciation of our past and present, with perhaps even a better chance to anticipate our future.


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