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Painters of American Life: The Eight

September 17 - November 30, 2008

 

The Telfair Museum of Art presents Painters of American Life: The Eight from September 17 through November 30, 2008 at the Telfair Academy. The public is invited to attend a series of related educational programs and events free of charge during the month of October.

"Although this exhibition focuses on artwork created a century ago, it is especially germane to artistic issues of today," said the Telfair's chief curator of fine arts and exhibitions Holly Koons McCullough. "By defying the accepted artistic conventions of their time, The Eight paved the way for artists of the twenty-first century and initiated the spirit of independence and self-determination characterizing the contemporary art world."

On February 3, 1908, Macbeth Galleries in New York opened an exhibition of works by eight living American artists that quickly became the talk of the town. Thousands of visitors crowded into the galleries, even lining up outside, all trying to catch a glimpse of paintings by Arthur B. Davies, William Glackens, Robert Henri, Ernest Lawson, George Luks, Maurice B. Prendergast, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan. When the show closed on February 19, The Eight, as they soon came to be known, had become a sensation.

The Eight successfully staged an independent group show and launched the modern ritual of artistic rebellion in twentieth-century America. In the past, artists submitted their works to academic juries and experts before they were on view to the public. The Eight did away with the established hierarchy and sought a direct channel to reach audiences and market their work. They deliberately garnered the attention of the press, which helped them orchestrate their exhibition as a media event. This form of independent group exhibition became a hallmark of the modern art world.

This year marks the centennial of The Eight's 1908 show and is an appropriate occasion to revisit the work of this group of illustrious artists. As with many other group exhibitions that formed over the course of the twentieth century, The Eight was a temporary gathering of artists that soon dissolved. But it was also unique and historically important in its diversity-unlike other independent modern movements, The Eight did not pursue a single aesthetic. The works included in Painters of American Life represent a cross-section of subjects that one would have encountered at Macbeth Galleries, from portraits and landscapes to scenes of urban life.

The exhibition includes works that date from around 1908 while others preceded or followed the legendary show by a number of years. This broader chronological approach allows viewers to look at The Eight's artistic output over a longer stretch of time. Over this same period, the Telfair's fine arts advisor, Gari Melchers, was actively collecting works by The Eight for the museum's permanent collection. Two such paintings, Henri's La Madrileñita and Lawson's Stuyvesant Square in Winter, are included in the exhibition.

Painters of American Life: The Eight is organized by Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art in Nashville, Tennessee.

 

Wall texts from the exhibition

 

Painters of American Life: The Eight
 
One hundred years ago, in February 1908, a group of eight artists mounted an exhibition that would become a milestone in the history of American art. Painters of American Life celebrates the centennial of The Eight with a survey of portraits, landscapes, and scenes of urban life spanning their careers.
 
The Eight included Arthur B. Davies, William Glackens, Robert Henri, Ernest Lawson, George Luks, Maurice B. Prendergast, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan. As a group, they sought to show their work independently from the National Academy of Design, which had set strict rules and standards for artists. Rejecting the institutional establishment, The Eight organized an exhibition at Macbeth Galleries in New York that relied on the press and the general public for validation and promotion. The Eight thus set a model for artist groups throughout the twentieth century who staged their own independent exhibitions.
 
Robert Henri, a leader of the group, often claimed that to be independent, American artists had to paint American life. After traveling and painting extensively in Europe, most of The Eight settled in New York, and the city became a principle source for their imagery. Critics later referred to several members of the group as Ashcan artists, but The Eight were not exclusively urban realists, also painting non-urban landscapes from coastal Massachusetts to the high desert of New Mexico. The Eight were united in advancing modern art, but they were intriguingly diverse in their stylistic approaches. After one hundred years, the group still stands out as a fascinating movement in the history of modern art in America.
 
Jochen Wierich, Ph.D.
Curator of Art
Cheekwood Botanical Garden & Museum of Art
 
This exhibition is organized by Cheekwood Botanical Garden & Museum of Art, Nashville, Tennessee.
 
 
Nature and Landscape
 
Although better known as painters of the city, The Eight had a persistent interest in landscape painting, whether European or American, rural or urban. For Lawson and Prendergast, nature was a central source of inspiration, and they often sought out places where city and country met. Prendergast's images of families strolling through city parks or visitors at coastal resorts come to mind. Stylistically, these two artists developed very unique and personal approaches to color and brushwork, transforming the art of landscape into a field of painterly experimentation. Davies also drew on nature but approached it with a sense of mysticism and reverie. In his paintings figures move and dance across the landscape, creating an atmosphere of imaginative escape. Although Henri, Luks, Glackens, Shinn, and Sloan made their reputations as painters of urban life, they frequently painted landscapes during their vacations or travels. From the Maine woods to the New England coast and the high deserts of New Mexico, the artists were constantly exploring American scenery. In doing so, they abandoned older models of landscape painting that staged nature to fit certain ideals and instead focused on direct and realistic observation. They also asserted the value of nature in a new century.
 
Portrait and Figure
 
Portraits of people remained a constant pursuit among a majority of The Eight. Henri, Glackens, Luks, Shinn, and Sloan focused either on specific likenesses or figure studies; Davies was more attached to the figure as symbolic representation. Henri and his circle were rooted in the realistic portrait and figural tradition of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where Thomas Eakins and Thomas Anshutz had taught and worked. They also were influenced by a more dramatic and glamorous portrait style practiced by William Merritt Chase, a Philadelphian now working in New York, and John Singer Sargent, a cosmopolitan artist who worked on both sides of the Atlantic. Henri's portrait of a Spanish bullfighter, El Picador, is a perfect example of the synthesis of these influences. Many of the great European artists that Henri's group so admired and emulated, including Frans Hals and Diego Velazquez, were portrait painters as well.
 
While American portrait painters tended to focus on notable people of wealth and professional merit, The Eight searched for personal qualities beyond social status. As Henri and others envisioned it, modern American portraiture needed to be democratic and egalitarian.
 
Urban Life
 
Ever since French artists such as Manet, Degas, and Monet began to explore the cities of London and Paris in their paintings, urban themes have been a hallmark of modern art. American impressionist painters occasionally painted city scenes around Boston and New York. Focusing on beautiful architecture, boulevards, and parks, they represented these urban spaces and sites in balanced compositions, making the city appear well-ordered and neat. The Eight radically changed the urban image in American art. Four of them were trained as newspaper illustrators, and their assignments often involved reportage in hidden alleys and working class neighborhoods where "respectable" artists would not venture. As depicted by the Eight, the city appears dark and chaotic, often viewed from an unusual or unexpected angle. Their scenes of urban life were teeming with characters that newspaper critics described as "tough" or "low," women of ill repute, and street urchins who were peddling or just idling. The Eight also portrayed aspects of urban entertainment, from barrooms to vaudeville theaters, previously overlooked in art. They embraced the city as a place, where, according to the poet Walt Whitman, the urban masses created a democracy of the street.

 

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