Editor's note: The following essay, from the exhibition catalogue In This Academy: The Pennsylvanian Academy of the Fine Arts 1805 - 1976, is reprinted August 1, 2008 in Resource Library with permission of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the exhibition catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, directly through either this phone number or web address:
By Frank H. Goodyear Jr
The revolution in American art associated with the work of The Eight or the Ashcan School, began in the studios of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Robert Henri, John Sloan, William Glackens, George Luks, and Everett Shinn were all Academy students. The training they received there made a vital imprint on their careers; their mature ideas of what constituted good painting were conditioned, in large part, by their early Academy education. Later, the Academy continued to support Henri and his friends despite the challenges they mounted against the academic system at the beginning of the twentieth century. Each artist, in varying degrees, continued his ties with the Academy. Each acknowledged his own special debt to the Academy.
During their often rowdy, fun-loving, but serious, student years, the Henri gang brought excitement, vibrancy, and purpose to the Academy. Later, they also brought change to the hierarchical structure of American art. From among their ranks came the proponents of radical ideas about the traditional jury system governing art exhibitions in America. They advocated non-juried exhibitions open to all serious artists. They did away with prizes in their own exhibitions. They epitomized the spirit of artistic independence.
The work of The Eight is, in the history of American art, a revolution less in style than in subject matter. In fact, when one considers fully the city life and industrial genre paintings of American artists like John George Brown, Joseph Decker, or John Ferguson Weir, even their subject matter scarcely seems revolutionary. The Eight were not the first American artists to paint the look of urban America. They were the first American artists to concentrate on painting city life.
Intellectually, the basis of the Ashcan aesthetic can be traced from the ideas of Thomas Eakins to the teaching of Thomas Anshutz at the Academy. Eakins was held in the highest esteem by both Henri and Sloan. Henri wrote of Eakins:
Eakins's practice of painting with honesty the world that he saw around him served as an inspiration to the younger realists. His insistence that no subject matter was below the dignity of the painter provided countless channels for exploration. Combined with Eakins's example was the popular teaching method of Anshutz, the Academy's principal instructor in the 1890s. Emphasizing some of Eakins's precepts, Anshutz advocated a basic program to give the student the necessary knowledge to pursue his own abilities and interests. Although he believed that art was "based on knowledge and knowledge on facts," he recognized that such knowledge was only the first requirement of an artist. To create great art, one had to transcend mere facts to attain a higher truth. To give both the small fact and the higher truth was beyond the power of ordinary artists. Anshutz recognized that the role of the mature artist was to "put such facts aside as interfere with the full rendering of the new truth, using only those which translate it."
Anshutz's dedication to teaching young art students won him the lifelong respect and friendship of scores of students who passed through the Academy. More than anything else, Anshutz sought to arouse in each of his students "an individual interest in the world about him" and the confidence to pursue his own course in the creation of art. George Luks, in acknowledging Anshutz as "the best art instructor I have ever had the 'good' fortune to encounter" not only expressed the sentiments of Henri, Sloan, Glackens, and Shinn but those of countless other Academy students.
Anshutz's tolerance for individuality among his students helps to explain the diversity of styles among them. Henri, Sloan, Glackens, Luks, and Shinn, all students of Anshutz at the Academy, manifest this diversity. While all were inveterate quick sketchers, carrying out Anshutz's dictum of observing the world about them, their similar drawing styles did not translate into similar painting styles. Later, with the addition of Maurice Prendergast, Ernest Lawson, and Arthur B. Davies into The Eight, three radically different painting styles were added. Clearly, Henri's purpose in forming the group was not to present a united front, but simply to organize a modern exhibition. In its efforts to identify similarities in the work of The Eight, at the expense of each of the artists' individuality, modern criticism has partially confused the meaning of this temporary association.
As a group, The Eight shared a common desire to promote modern painting, not just what might have then been called academic realism. Henri, the most vociferous in defense of his own students whose work was regularly rejected at the conservative National Academy of Design exhibitions, saw the need for non-juried shows. It was his pioneer crusading that eventually led to the non-juried Independents show in New York City in 1910 and the Armory show of 1913. The latter, under the leadership of Arthur B. Davies, in its promotion of a legitimate modernism, went a long way toward eclipsing the modernism label formerly linked in the critical mind with the work of The Eight. Certainly, even limited historical perspective quickly and justifiably discounted the label of modernism associated with the work of The Eight.
The work of The Eight is best seen as a link between the traditions of the late nineteenth century and early modernism in America. In this connection, the ideas of The Eight were more modern than their painting styles. Sloan expressed specific feelings of admiration for Hogarth and Constable,[10 ] and Luks frequently blustered about the greatness of Hals, Goya, and Velazquez. Such a respect for the past was partially a legacy of academic training and partially the influence of Robert Henri. Although Henri's immediate influence may have come from Eakins and Anshutz, he looked closely at past art traditions; in The Art Spirit, he summarized this attitude:
Henri was the natural leader of the group. Possessed of tremendous energy, determination, and wit, he inspired the men who gathered around him. A born teacher, he urged his students never to undervalue their own emotions and encouraged new methods of expression. His own style of painting reflected his quick mind and eye. He was never satisfied to stay with the same problem for long, and, consequently, the range of his work encompasses portraiture in the manner of Eakins, dark impressionistic cityscapes, impressionistic landscapes and seascapes painted in America and Ireland, and portrait studies of ethnic types and children.
Henri was always intent on capturing an effect. Nowhere does he achieve his goal better than in his full-length portrait of Ruth St. Denis in the Peacock Dance (cat. no. 252), painted in 1919. Sensuous in line and color, the portrait of the slender dancer, shimmering in a jewel-like peacock costume, epitomizes Henri's concern for massing essential forms and colors. The light surfaces are painted thinly, with little sense of underlying structure, in contrast to the thick impasto of the darks, making the portrait a tour de force in terms of Henri's technical experiments.
Henri advocated painting the facial features toward the completion of a portrait. He emphasized that it was not so much a question of painting the features as it was painting their expression. This expression was to manifest the state of mind of the sitter. In addition, the luscious red lips, tantalizing eyes, and evocative tilt of the head in the portrait of Ruth St. Denis all reveal the attraction the artist himself felt for the sitter.
Henri always urged his students to be genuinely interested in the subject. He advised his students at the Art Students League:
Like Eakins, Henri sought out expressive faces to paint. He was especially attracted to the Spanish and Indian middle and lower classes. His 1923 portrait, Man from Segovia in Fur-Trimmed Cap (cat. no. 253), exhibited at the Academy in 1926, expresses that attraction. The man in the portrait, weather-beaten and aged, yet full of the intense spirit of life, exemplifies Henri's basic understanding of human character. The Segovia man reveals the same honesty and expressiveness as Eakins's portrait of Walt Whitman (cat. no. 227).
Henri's versatility in portraiture is further demonstrated in his portraits of little children, the majority of which were painted toward the end of his life. Wee Maureen (cat. no. 254), painted in 1926, reflects his love of ordinary, pretty children whose portraits stand not only as individuals but also as symbols of childhood. Henri's love for humanity was his special gift to his friends and his legacy to John Sloan.
Sloan was Henri's closest friend among The Eight. To honor his friend's death in 1929, Sloan etched a portrait of Robert Henri Painter (cat. no. 268) in 1931. Sloan was a skilled graphic artist, employing the medium easily in portraiture and city life genre scenes. As a newspaper illustrator with both the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Press he had developed an incisive eye for accurate detail and humorous incidents. Sloan recorded his pleasure with the plate, feeling that it revealed "some of the kindly strength and helpful wisdom which this great artist so freely gave to others."
Sloan had been a student at the Pennsylvania Academy in Thomas Anshutz's antique class in 1892 and 1893. He first met Henri in Philadelphia, and it was Henri who finally persuaded Sloan to move permanently to New York in 1904. Sloan, in spite of the difficulty he encountered trying to find work in New York, was stimulated by his new surroundings. In 1905 he began a series of ten etchings inspired by the city. The "New York City Life" series, as they became known, represents Sloan's first serious encounter with the city in its many aspects and moods. Full of light-hearted sarcasm, joyousness, social commentary, and love of the city and its inhabitants, the series was sent by Sloan, at the invitation of the etcher Charles Mielatz, to the American Water Color Society exhibition in 1906. To Sloan's horror, four of the print -- Roofs, Summer Night (cat. no. 265), Man, Wife, and Child, Turning Out the Light (cat. no. 264), and The Women's Page --were returned as being too "vulgar" to exhibit. In their candor and human expression, they rival the narratives of Hogarth, Rowlandson, and Daumier.
Sloan's social commentary found a release in his oil canvases. He was never afraid to confront what he saw in the city. He painted ordinary scenes of ordinary people -- the bustle of street life, festive gatherings at McSorley's bar, carefree girls playing in the parks. Possessing a profound sense of the inequalities of American society, in 1912 he became an editor of the Socialist Party magazine The Masses, a position he retained until the advent of World War 1.
One of his most severe canvases, Coffee Line (cat. no. 263) of 1905, developed these social overtones more than usual in his work. Coffee Line is not only a commentary on the tragic condition of man and the cold anonymity of the city but it also expresses Sloan's own frustrations at not achieving early critical recognition. Thus, he was especially pleased that the painting won an Honorable Mention at the Carnegie Institute exhibition in 1905 and that Thomas Eakins had served on the award jury.
Sloan's work most often expressed his own affirmative commitment to life. Like Henri's, its range was great. Sloan responded not only to the urban environment but also to the picturesque scenery around Gloucester, Massachusetts and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Easter Eve (cat. no. 266) of 1907, shown at both the Macbeth Galleries and the Pennsylvania Academy landmark exhibition of The Eight in 1908, is one of Sloan's most important early paintings done in New York. It demonstrates Sloan's versatility in opposing areas of pure color painted in impressionistic strokes against darker surfaces rendered in generalized outlines.
William Glackens was a close friend of both Sloan and Henri. He attended night classes at the Pennsylvania Academy with Sloan, who introduced him to Henri. Glackens shared a studio with Henri at 806 Walnut Street in Philadelphia, and in 1895 both went off to Paris, where they were constant companions. In the spring of 1896, the two, along with Elmer Schofield, took a bicycling trip through northern France, Holland, and Belgium. When Glackens returned to America later that year, he settled in New York rather than in Philadelphia and shared a studio with George Luks.
Glackens's experience as a reporter-illustrator with the Philadelphia Record and the Philadelphia Inquirer made it easier for him to find a job in the art department of the New York Herald upon his return from Europe. He quickly became one of the Herald's best illustrators; his work combined accuracy of detail, humor, and a keen perception of human foibles. Among The Eight, Glackens held the distinction of being the most capable and accomplished illustrator.
Glackens's illustrations carry the conviction of an intuitive sensitivity to line. He seemed at his best, whether at illustration or painting, when he was least self-conscious about style. In painting, Glackens's style was strongly influenced by the work of the French Impressionists, especially Renoir. Glackens's paintings of female nudes and flower still lifes particularly recall Renoir's manner and, like the paintings of Renoir and Degas, retain the imprint of an academic background. In Glackens's figure paintings, forms rarely lose their substance. And yet form is not conceived in terms of substance alone, but of color and light as well. Clackens's high-keyed tones of bright colors are strongly derived from Renoir's later work. In 1912, Glackens, at the direction of his friend Dr. Albert C. Barnes, traveled to Europe to buy modern European paintings for his client. Along with works by Manet, Degas, Cezanne, van Gogh, Gauguin, and Matisse, Glackens purchased a large number of Renoirs for Barnes.
The Soda Fountain (cat. no. 251), painted by Glackens in 1935, only three years before his death, shows the influence of Renoir's palette and brushwork. It is typically American, however, in its emphasis on the details of the scene. It is also reminiscent of Clackens's background as an illustrator by virtue of its narrative quality.
Glackens was a quiet, gentle, lonely man with the security of a wealthy wife. His friend, George Luks, was radically different. Luks was known as a pugilist and heavy drinker. He was constantly impoverished, finding it always difficult to sell his paintings. His natural aesthetic gravitated to the powerful images of the Dutch and Spanish schools, notably those of Hals, Rembrandt, and Velazquez. Unlike Glackens, whose work expressed a happy optimism about life, Luks's work often revealed life's uglier, gloomier side. While he painted clowns and entertainers like the Polish Dancer (cat. no. 257) and was a great mimic himself, his repertoire ranged to aged hags and impoverished street children. He recognized the meanness and cruelty of life in his work.
Luks had no patience for modernism. As a student under Anshutz at the Pennsylvania Academy and later at the Dusseldorf Academy, he was reared in the humanistic traditions of art. Like Henri, Sloan, Glackens, and Shinn, Luks's motivation for painting was his own deep belief in humanity. His paintings capture in a rough, at times crude, style the salient features of character types.
The Polish Dancer is one of Luks's gayest and most brilliant portraits. Its flamboyance elevates the mood of the painting to a visual excitement that is so often missing in Luks's drabber subjects. Luks seems most comfortable in his paintings of entertainers. Like Shinn and, to a lesser extent, Glackens, Luks found inspiration in the theatrical life of the city.
Luks shared an apartment with Everett Shinn when both worked as staff artists for the Philadelphia Press. Shinn, the youngest of The Eight, was a student at the Pennsylvania Academy under Anshutz from 1893 to 1897. In the latter year he moved to New York and soon began doing decorative murals in interior architectural settings for impresarios like David Belasco and decorators like Elsie de Wolfe. He continued as an illustrator, working in pencil, watercolor, and pastel. In the early 1900s he completed a series of monochromatic city vignettes that dealt with both the depravity of New York and its new architectural beauty. The meaning of The Docks - New York City (cat. no. 259) of 1901 is cloaked in ambiguity. It may be conceived of either as a statement about the harsh conditions of the working class or as a symbol of the confused dislocation of the newly arrived immigrant in America. In either case, Shinn has cast the subject in a purposefully cold and unpleasant scene.
Shinn's real love was the theater, and the rich, glittering women associated with it. He himself was known for his dapper dress and brilliant conversation. Throughout his career he painted theatrical subjects. Although he often claimed that he studied no one but Manet, the influence of Degas, and of Degas's disciple, Jean Louis Forain, is unmistakable in Shinn's theater and cabaret compositions. Shinn's London Hippodrome (cat. no. 210) of 1902 seems to be closely derived from Forain's Tightrope Walker (Art Institute of Chicago). London Hippodrome is quintessentially Shinn. He recognized his difficulty in rendering portraits, and the dark balcony setting allows him to leave the mass of the audience in relative obscurity. A sense of opulence is created through rich coloration and dramatic lighting. Curiously, the audience's attention is on the stage below and not on the trapeze dancer who floats just above their heads. In his use of such a dramatic device as a swinging trapeze artist, Shinn recalls the work of Degas and Forain and anticipates the similar environments of the contemporary sculptor George Segal.
London Hippodrome was one of eight canvases Shinn exhibited at the Macbeth Galleries and subsequently at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1908. Nine years earlier, when Shinn was only twenty-three, the Academy had sponsored an exhibition of his pastels. Such one-man shows at the Academy were not unusual for members of The Eight; in 1897 and again in 1902 Robert Henri's work was shown in one-man shows, and in 1907 an exhibition of the work of Ernest Lawson was held.
The Henri gang shared a similar background, and their work dealt with many of the same images of the city. It was these realistic depictions of the city that prompted hostile critics to label the artists "apostles of ugliness." Ernest Lawson, Maurice Prendergast, and Arthur R. Davies were outside the inner circle of the Henri gang. Conceptually and stylistically, their work hears no affinity to the Ashcan School. Lawson was an Impressionist, Prendergast a Neo-Impressionist, and Davies a visionary lyricist in the American tradition of Ryder and Vedder.
Ernest Lawson was a landscape painter with a unique, heavy, impressionistic style. After working in Mexico City as a draftsman for an engineering firm, he studied at the Art Students League in New York. He worked for a year with John Twachtman and J. Alden Weir in Cos Cob, Connecticut. In 1893 he went to Paris to study at the Academie Julian under John Paul Laurens and Benjamin Constant. His greatest influence at the time was the work of the English Impressionist Alfred Sisley, whom he met near Fontainebleau on his first trip abroad.
Even though Lawson's work sold relatively well, he was continually plagued with financial debts. Not infrequently, the Pennsylvania Academy found buyers for his paintings. In 1907, in acknowledging the honor of receiving the Jennie Sesnan Gold Medal awarded to the best landscape in an Academy annual exhibition, Lawson noted his appreciation: "Whatever success I have had in painting has always been connected in some way with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts." In 1920 Lawson's Ice Bound Falls was awarded the Temple Gold Medal for the best painting in the annual.
Nevertheless, it was not until 1935, when Lawson was sixty-two, that the Academy first purchased one of his paintings. Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia (cat. no. 256), painted about 1935, is typical of Lawson's landscape vision. Almost always Lawson's compositions are strongly structured and his forms solidly outlined. He rarely allowed his penchant for traditional realism to be negated by the looseness of the Impressionist style. Even in his many winter landscapes, Lawson never lost sight of form and structure.
Lawson considered color the most revealing quality of his painting; he used it to create moods. He seemed to favor the quieter, more introspective moods of nature, developed through subtle tonal variations within a limited range of colors, evident in such canvases as The Broken Fence; Spring Flood (cat. no. 255), but was equally capable of holder color statements. Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia (cat. no. 267) is one of Lawson's most brilliant canvases, full of the vitality obtained by juxtaposing pure colors.
Maurice Prendergast was equally moved by the joy of color. As a watercolorist, and in his oils and monotypes, Prendergast's exuberance for color was well noted in his day. His earliest work in Paris shows the influence of Whistler and later the Nabis. Unlike the Nabis, however, Prendergast was less interested in color theory than in color.
Prendergast had tentative beginnings as an artist. Until 1891, at the age of thirty-one, he had pursued painting as an avocation. In 1891 he traveled to Paris where he enrolled at Colarossi's and at the Academie Julian. He quickly became a close friend of the Canadian painter, James Morrice, who introduced Prendergast into the artistic life of Paris. Exposed to the diversity of painting styles and theories of art of late nineteenth-century Paris and with a recent academic background, Prendergast, in his early work, showed a multiplicity of influences. The effects of these influences were to remain evident throughout his life. Out of his Parisian experience Prendergast quickly developed a mature style.
Prendergast's Parisian work dealt with the everyday life of the city -- the milling crowds along the wide boulevards and in the parks, cafe life, and market stalls. Following the dictum given thirty years earlier by Charles Baudelaire, the great French poet and critic, he found inspiration for his paintings in "la vie moderne." His work would continue to be a response to the world he observed.
By 1895 Prendergast had returned to Boston. In four short years he had become an accomplished artist. His favorite subjects, most often rendered in watercolor, were beach scenes populated by holiday crowds. In 1898 Prendergast went back to Europe to see Italy. In the long tradition of American artists who had visited Italy, Prendergast was captivated by Venice and his discovery of Italian Renaissance painting. His interest in the early Italian Gothic painters was exceeded only by that in Carpaccio's work. From the Italians, Prendergast learned to structure his paintings with a more rigid geometry, often presenting a frieze of figures in varying attitudes along the foreground against a diminishing level of activity leading horizontally to a landscape background. His figures often show their dependence on classical poses and yet they succeed, unlike the figures of Puvis de Chavannes, whom Prendergast admired, as contemporary statements from the real world. The combination of tradition and newness is resolved into a strong personal style in Prendergast's work.
Bathers in a Cove (cat. no. 258) of 1916 is both joyous and free in its use of color and tightly structured compositionally. Although the scene is interpreted in an impressionistic style, it clearly exists in reality and not in the artist's imagination. In this respect, among The Eight, only the work of Arthur B. Davies, in its flights of fancy, transcends the real world.
Davies's work continues the visionary tradition in American art associated with Albert Pinkham Ryder and Elihu Vedder in the nineteenth century. And like Ryder and Vedder, Davies came out of an academic background, having studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. His model in France, Puvis de Chavannes, had strong academic leanings and was also interested in Italian primitive painting. One can only wonder at Davies's visionary sensibility in light of this background.
Davies's work reveals his own mystical propensities often combined with subtle references to classical mythology as well as overt references to classical art. Into his mysterious surroundings, Arcadian worlds, he introduced nymph-like figures based on his study of human form. As a sculptor, his approach to the human figure was both traditional and experimental. In his drawings of nude models, such as Reclining Nude (cat. no. 248), he manifested a real ability to draw the human figure. When he introduced these figures into his paintings, they regularly became symbols of his own introspective world and lost their substance. Discoveries: Isle of Destiny (cat. no. 250) is indicative of this metamorphosis. Its horizontal format exists almost as a diptych, with a disturbing void at the center. The figures clearly relate to his sculptured and drawn forms. but they exist as flat patterns of light color against a darker background. In Discoveries: Isle of Destiny the figures may be icons of human vanity in the face of childhood innocence.
Davies seemed to have an intuitive sense about modern art. Unlike other members of The Eight, he spoke positively about the abstract developments of art in Europe of the early twentieth century. Next to Alfred Stieglitz, Davies did more to promote modern art in the United States than any other person. Ironically, as president of the American Association of Painters and Sculptors, which sponsored the 1913 Armory Show in New York, he was the leader of the first important modern art exhibition in America that quickly brought on the decline of Robert Henri as the spokesman for the modern American art scene. After 1913 Henri was never again to gain the same leadership status he had enjoyed in the early twentieth century.
The Armory Show did much to promote modernism in America. It was not, however, the death knell of that brand of realism espoused by The Eight. Not only did each of The Eight continue painting for many years after, but their influence remained strong, especially in academic circles like the Pennsylvania Academy. In the later work of the Fourteenth Street School -- in Bellows and Marsh and Soyer -- they had creative disciples. Their tradition remains a strong one to this day. In the urban images of contemporary artists, like those of Richard Estes and Robert Cottingham, the legacy of The Eight is at work.
About the author
Frank Goodyear, Jr. became the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts' first professional curator in 1972. Goodyear was director and then president of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, posts he held for two years and 10 years, respectively. In 1999 he was appointed as Director to the Heard Museum of Phoenix, AZ.
Resource Library editor's note
The above exhibition catalogue text was reprinted in Resource Library on August 1, 2008, with permission of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The permission was granted to TFAO on June 10, 2008. Mr. Goodyear's essay pertains to In This Academy: The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1805 - 1976, which was on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1976 as a special Bicentennial exhibition.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Barbara Katus, Rights and Reproduction Manager of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Stacey Wittig for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
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