By George Bulanda
A new exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts is trashing the belief that the Ashcan School produced only dreary scenes of the downtrodden in drab, muddy colors.
Life’s Pleasures: The Ashcan School’s Brush With Leisure, 1895-1925 (March 2-May 25) shows diversity in styles, subjects, and intensity of hues in more than 80 paintings by 22 artists.
“People often think of the Ashcan painters as concerned with the working class or the Lower East Side crowd,” says James W. Tottis, exhibit organizer and associate curator of American art at the DIA. “But their subjects ranged from the poor on the streets to the very wealthy,” he says.
So visitors will see muted works by John Sloan and George Luks, but they’ll also view ladies in white summer dresses in the sun-drenched A Day in June, by George Bellows, and carefree New Yorkers relaxing around a fountain in Maurice Prendergast’s In Central Park.
Robert Henri, the Ashcan movement’s lodestar, didn’t want his disciples to mimic him, Tottis says. “He told them to go out and paint what is real, but he said, ‘Don’t paint in the same style I do.’ It gave the artists the ability to use a variety of different palettes and techniques.”
Many of the painters, including Sloan, Luks, and Everett Shinn, were trained as newspaper illustrators, which Tottis says gave their paintings an air of spontaneity. “They had to learn to capture a scene and sketch gestures and poses quickly because they were on deadline.”
Painting people at leisure may be the exhibit’s focus, but the Ashcan artists also liked to kick back at New York watering holes. “They’d go to The Café Francis or McSorley’s,” Tottis says. “They had fun hanging out.”