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Life's Pleasures: The Ashcan School's Brush with Leisure, 1895-1925

March 2 - May 25, 2008


Hairstyles and fashions are different, and there are more options today -- movies, the internet, video games -- but in some ways, Americans spend their leisure time much as they did 100 years ago. People still hang out at bars, eat in restaurants, walk in the park, watch sporting events, attend concerts and go to the theater. Life's Pleasures: The Ashcan School's Brush with Leisure, 1895-1925, a special exhibition on view March 2 - May 25 at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) explores how city-dwellers at the turn of the last century spent their leisure time through 80 paintings by American artists known collectively as the Ashcan School. The exhibition is organized by the DIA, and has traveled to Nashville and New York.

The Ashcan school refers to a group of artists centered around artist/teacher Robert Henri, who instructed his students to "paint what is real." These artists were men of their times, fully engaged with the urban environment; they painted what they lived. Many works feature bars and cafes where they hung out or depict performances they attended. Several were former newspaper illustrators used to sketching events while they were happening, to capture a vivid sense of the "real."

Much of the Ashcan artists' subject matter dealt with the grittier side of city life. While working as an illustrator at the socialist newspaper The Masses, George Bellows drew a picture of bums taking scraps from a garbage can and titled it "Disappointments of the Ash Can." The editor was offended by Bellows' portrayal of the downtrodden and his failure to embrace the moral socialist cause. He wrote about Bellows and the other artists who worked there: "They want to run pictures of ash cans and girls hitching up their skirts in Horatio Street... For my part, I do not care to be connected with a publication that does not try to point out the way out of a sordid materialistic world." The term "ash can" stuck, even though the artists' work is far broader than the label suggests.

The Ashcan artists also painted another side of urban life -- that of leisure-time activities of varying social classes. From parks, prizefights and performances to bars, beaches, ballet, and everything in between, Life's Pleasures brings together works by Robert Henri, George Bellows, Alfred Maurer, William Glackens, John Sloan, George Luks, Guy Pène du Bois, and others, that bring the art of having fun to life.

"Visitors will find these painting by America's first modern painters truly engaging," said Graham W. J. Beal, DIA director. "The overall picture is one of zest for life and delight in the pleasures of modern urban America -- very different from the grim and grimy images of downtrodden immigrants often associated with the Ashcan circle."

What is remarkable about the works in the exhibition is that they realistically capture not only the people and activities, but also evoke the atmosphere surrounding them. In one of the more famous paintings in the exhibition, the DIA's own McSorley's Bar by John Sloan, the viewer is transported to a dusty, dark bar where one can almost smell the damp, smoky air. George Bellows, a former newspaper illustrator, painted a scene from a famous prizefight between Jack Dempsey and Luis Angel Firpo. Bellows was in the audience when Firpo sent Dempsey flying out of the ring, and his painting captures the excitement and drama of the moment.

Other leisure-time themes include Dining Out, Fine and Performing Arts, Sports and Recreation, and The Outdoors.


(above: John Sloan, Gray and Brass, 1907, oil on canvas, 21 _ 26 5/8 inches. Dr. Karen A. and Mr. Kevin W. Kennedy Collection.)


About the curator

James W. Tottis is Associate Curator of American Art, Detroit Institute of Arts.

Tottis joined the American art department in 1985 as assistant curator and is responsible for one of country's premier 18th-, 19th- and early 20th-century painting collections, as well as sculpture, furniture and decorative arts. Tottis is also the staff liaison for the DIA auxiliaries Associates of the American Wing and Founders Junior Council.

Tottis attended Wayne State University (WSU) in Detroit, where he earned a bachelor's degree in History, and bachelor's and master's degrees in Art History. He is currently an adjunct professor in the Humanities department at WSU.

In addition to organizing Life's Pleasures: The Ashcan Artists' Brush with Leisure, 1895-1925, Tottis has also organized and curated American Beauty: Painting and Sculpture from the Detroit Institute of Arts, 1770-1920, which toured in Europe and the U.S. (2002-2004); Building Detroit (2001) and Selections of American Folk Art from the Detroit Institute of Arts (1997).

Tottis coordinated several important projects at the DIA, including the restoration of Washington Alston's monumental painting Belshazzar's Feast. He also directed several gallery restorations and reinstallations including the Hudson River school galleries, the late 19th-early 20th-century decorative arts gallery, and the gallery devoted to works from the mid-19th century.

Tottis has contributed to numerous publications, including Collecting American Decorative Arts 1985-2005, American Paintings in the Detroit Institute of Arts vol. III, An Exhibition at the Residence of the U.S. Ambassador Bratislava, Slovak Republic, and From the Hudson River School to Impressionism: American Paintings from the Manoogian Collection.

Tottis is a member of the Association of Art Museum Curators and the National Academy of Design.

(above: Maurice Prendergast,In Central Park, ca. 1900-1903, watercolor, 20 _ x 27 5/8 inches. Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts. Gift of an anonymous donor. [1928.48])



A fully illustrated 216-page catalogue by James Tottis (Author), Valerie Ann Leeds (Author), Vincent Digirolamo (Author), Marianne Doezema (Author), Suzanne Smeaton (Author), published by the Detroit Institute of Arts and Merrell, accompanies the exhibition. ISBN-10: 1858943841 and ISBN-13: 978-1858943848 (right: front cover of Life's Pleasures: The Ashcan Artists' Brush With Leisure, 1895-1925. Photo courtesy Amazon.com)

Amazon.com's Editorial Review page for the book says:

Book Description
The images that are often associated with the Ashcan school of artists are the more sombre depictions of working-class life in early twentieth-century New York. This subject matter is not, however, representative of the entire spectrum of Ashcan art. Featuring some of the Ashcan school's most vibrant and outstanding works, this book demonstrates unequivocally the zeal with which these artists and their circle embraced the world of play enjoyed by all levels of society. Spirited scenes of diverse leisure activities in cafés, bars and parks, at the theatre, on the beach, at sporting events and in the countryside provide a refreshing look at this important artistic movement.
Offers a fresh exploration of a major American artistic movement
Features works by the Ashcan artists and their circle, including George Bellows (see opposite), William Glackens, Robert Henri, Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, George Luks, Guy Pène du Bois, Maurice Prendergast, Everett Shinn and John Sloan, among others
Complemented by lively essays on the world of leisure experienced and depicted by the Ashcan school.


To view:

Wall panel texts from the exhibition please click here.

Images of selected art objects from the exhibition please click here.


Programs and Special Offerings

On Saturdays at 4 p.m. from March 15 to April 19, the DIA's Detroit Film Theatre will present Celluloid Pleasures: American Pastimes of the Silent Era. The free matinees will feature live musical accompaniment. These include films featuring Douglas Fairbanks, W.C. Fields, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.

Circa 1900: Celebrating American Turn-of-the-Century Arts -- March 27-31. This national symposium includes a day and a half devoted to the Ashcan School with receptions at the Manoogian collection and the Scarab Club. Arts and Crafts will be the focus of the next two days, with lectures, visits to Pewabic Pottery, the Guardian Building and other architectural gems. A day-long trip to Cranbrook rounds out the symposium. Call 313-833-4025 for information or to register.

Beginning Saturday, April 5, artist Richard Lewis paints a portrait from a live model in the same vein as Ashcan painters such as Robert Henri. He will complete the portrait over the next four Saturdays while visitors watch him work.

Frank Deford, National Public Radio commentator and senior editor at Sports Illustrated, will give a talk entitled "Sports: The Hype and Hypocrisy" on April 6 at 2 p.m. This is a ticketed event.

Friday Night Live will feature different music groups configured from paintings in the show. For example, a painting by George Luks depicts a guitarist, flute player and vocalist. The same type of trio will perform live. During the April 9 Friday Night Live, special Gallery Moments will feature the Aerial Angels, a female circus act performing tightrope walking, an aerial hoop and other daring feats. CafeDIA will serve ale from McSorley's Bar, shipped in specially from New York.

Guided tours of works in the DIA collection dealing with leisure time will also be available as are Speakers Bureau talks for adult groups (call 313-833-1510).


(above: John Sloan, McSorley's Bar, 1912, oil on canvas, 26 x 31 inches. Detroit Institute of Arts, Founder's Society purchase.)


Complementary exhibition

A complementary exhibition drawn from the DIA's collection, Give it a Rest: People at Play in American Prints and Drawings, 1895-1945 will be on view April 2 - August 3, 2008. These approximately 100 works on paper are dominated by the prints of John Sloan, George Bellows, Glenn O. Coleman, and Martin Lewis. Their images form a rich reflection of casual times in daily life. Grouped around these scenes of play and leisure are images by other artists such as Childe Hassam and Guy Pène du Bois. The early era is represented by several colorful lithographs created for popular magazines by Edward Penfield and William Carqueville and the range of the exhibition is expanded to include works made by artists during the late 1930s who were employed through the Works Progress Administration. This exhibition is free with museum admission.

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