Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on August 22, 2005 with the permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the article, please contact Valerie Ann Leeds directly through either this phone number or address:


The Independents: The Ashcan School & Their Circle from Florida Collections

by Valerie Ann Leeds



Early in this century, Robert Henri launched an independent movement in American art. The influential painter and teacher had a zealous commitment to promoting progressive art and worked assiduously to arrange independent exhibitions as alternatives to the National Academy of Design annuals. Henri and many associates felt the National Academy did not support more liberal, modern ideas and was, therefore, unresponsive to their art. Opposing competitions and the selections of reactionary juries, Henri advocated a no-jury, no-prize, open policy for exhibitions that he felt fostered a creative atmosphere.

Henri, and many contemporaries worked in a style of realism that was later, imprecisely, designated "The Ashcan School."[1] By comparative standards of the day, these artists portrayed less-traditional subjects and a harsher view of the world; their realism was blunt and unpolished. However, a survey of their output reveals only modest representation of baser urban themes.

Certain of these artists -- notably Ernest Lawson, Maurice Prendergast, and Arthur B. Davies -- appear stylistically unrelated to the Ashcan School aesthetic. However, the common thread of this group was their united belief in artistic independence, and desire for a forum in which they could freely exhibit their work.

An inspiring teacher with intoxicating enthusiasm and a charismatic personality, Henri drew a loyal following of students, colleagues, and friends. Though the independent movement was not formally organized, Henri and his coterie were at the core of those who sought to undermine the conservative art establishment, notably, the National Academy's primary authority in artistic matters.

This movement was an unrelated series of independently organized alternative exhibitions, intended to challenge and reform the National Academy. Though the independents are often portrayed as National Academy secessionists, many kept their professional ties and continued to show their work in the Academy's annual exhibitions.

An early forerunner was a 1901 gallery show organized at Henri's instigation. Held at the Allan Gallery in New York City, it included the works of Henri, William Glackens, and John Sloan. In a 1903 exhibition at New York's Colonial Club, Henri, Sloan, and Glackens were joined by George Luks, Ernest Lawson, Jerome Myers, and Gifford Beal, among others. Neither exhibition received much critical attention. However, an independent precursor to The Eight's landmark exhibition was a 1904 group show selected by Henri and held at the National Arts Club. Six of The Eight (Henri, Glackens, Davies, Sloan, Luks, and Prendergast) exhibited, and the show received laudatory press coverage.[2]

Momentum increased for progressive art exhibitions, and further dissatisfaction with the National Academy erupted at its 82nd annual exhibition. Henri accused fellow jurors of biased and unfair procedures, and walked off the jury, withdrew two of his three entries, and took his dispute to the press.[3] Out of frustration, he selected and organized an 1908 exhibition at Macbeth Galleries with the group that became known as The Eight. The effort capitalized on the immense publicity Henri's rupture with the National Academy generated.

The show opened February 3, 1908, and proved a media sensation and financial success. It subsequently toured Philadelphia, Chicago, Toledo, Detroit, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Bridgeport, and Newark, engendering critical debate while introducing the work of Henri, Sloan, Glackens, Luks, Shinn, Lawson, Prendergast, and Davies to a national audience.

Henri, John Sloan, Walt Kuhn, and Arthur B. Davies, made the 1910 Exhibition of Independent Artists a far greater undertaking. Others involved with the show included Jerome Myers, Guy Pene du Bois, and Rockwell Kent. With a no-jury, no-prize system, works were hung alphabetically to encourage an egalitarian approach. The exhibition was modeled after the Salon des Independants held by independent French artists.

The 1910 show ran from April 1 to April 17, at a building on West 35th Street in New York City. Almost five hundred works by more than one hundred artists were presented. Hordes of people thronged the exhibition during its run; a crowd surpassing two thousand attended the opening alone. Though it received much media attention, the views were varied and conflicting, and sales were few.[4]

After this extravaganza, Henri attempted to realize his original notion of smaller, democratic, no-jury, no-prize exhibitions. In 1911, he began a series of exhibitions that continued for eight years. The first was held at New York's MacDowell Club (named for American composer Edward MacDowell). The exhibitions were conceived on a smaller scale, with a changing roster of artists selected by rotating representatives, providing a relatively open forum. Many progressive independents were included in these exhibitions over the course of the next eight years.

However, a single independent art exhibition would have the greatest impact on the history of American art. It was an ambitious proposition that expanded the 1910 Independent Exhibition's concept to an international level. The Armory Show was organized by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, led by association president Arthur B. Davies, and secretary Walt Kuhn, but involved little participation on Henri's part. The show ran in New York City from February 17 through March 15, 1913. It toured Chicago and Boston and was seen by well over a quarter of a million people at all three venues.[5]


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