Modern Art - American Realism

Movement: Modern Art - American Realism
Dates: c. 1850 - c. 1950

American Realism was a style in art, music and literature that depicted contemporary social realities and the lives and everyday activities of ordinary people. The movement began in literature in the mid-19th century, and became an important tendency in visual art in the early 20th century. Whether a cultural portrayal or a scenic view of downtown New York City, American realist works attempted to define what was real.

In the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century a new generation of painters, writers and journalists were coming of age. Many of the painters felt the influence of older U.S. artists such as Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, Winslow Homer, Childe Hassam, J. Alden Weir, Thomas Pollock Anshutz, and William Merritt Chase. However they were interested in creating new and more urbane works that reflected city life and a population that was more urban than rural in the U.S. as it entered the new century.

America in the early 20th century

From the late 19th to the early 20th centuries, the United States experienced huge industrial, economic, social and cultural change. A continuous wave of European immigration and the rising potential for international trade brought increasing growth and prosperity to America. Through art and artistic expression (through all mediums including painting, literature and music), American Realism attempted to portray the exhaustion and cultural exuberance of the figurative American landscape and the life of ordinary Americans at home. Artists used the feelings, textures and sounds of the city to influence the color, texture and look of their creative projects. Musicians noticed the quick and fast-paced nature of the early 20th century and responded with a fresh and new tempo. Writers and authors told a new story about Americans; boys and girls real Americans could have grown up with. Pulling away from fantasy and focusing on the now, American Realism presented a new gateway and a breakthroughintroducing modernism, and what it means to be in the present. The Ashcan School also known as The Eight and the group called Ten American Painters created the core of the new American Modernism in the visual arts.

Ashcan School and The Eight

The Ashcan School was a group of New York City artists who sought to capture the feel of early-20th-century New York City, through realistic portraits of everyday life. These artists preferred to depict the richly and culturally textured lower class immigrants, rather than the rich and promising Fifth Avenue socialites. One critic of the time did not like their choice of subjects, which included alleys, tenements, slum dwellers, and in the case of John Sloan, taverns frequented by the working class. They became known as the revolutionary black gang and apostles of ugliness.

George Bellows

George Bellows (1882-1925), painted city life in New York City. His paintings had an expressionist boldness and a willingness to take risks. He had a fascination with violence as seen in his 1909 painting, Both Members of This Club, which depicts a rather gory boxing scene. His 1913 painting Cliff Dwellers, depicts a city-scape that is not one particular view but a composite of many views.

Robert Henri

Robert Henri (1865-1921) was an important American Realist and a member of The Ashcan School. Henri was interested in the spectacle of common life. He focused on individuals, strangers, quickly passing in the streets in towns and cities. His was a sympathetic rather than a comic portrayal of people, often using a dark background to add to the warmth of the person depicted. Henri's works were characterized by vigorous brushstrokes and bold impasto which stressed the materiality of the paint. Henri influenced Glackens, Luks, Shinn and Sloan. In 1906, he was elected to the National Academy of Design, but when painters in his circle were rejected for the Academy's 1907 exhibition, he accused fellow jurors of bias and walked off the jury, resolving to organize a show of his own. He would later refer to the Academy as a cemetery of art.

Everett Shinn

Everett Shinn (1876-1953), a member of the Ashcan School, was most famous for his numerous paintings of New York and the theater, and of various aspects of luxury and modern life inspired by his home in New York City. He painted theater scenes from London, Paris and New York. He found interest in the urban spectacle of life, drawing parallels between the theater and crowded seats and life. Unlike Degas, Shinn depicted interaction between the audience and performer.

George Benjamin Luks

George B. Luks (1866-1933) was an Ashcan school artist who lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In Luks' painting, Hester Street (1905), he shows children being entertained by a man with a toy while a woman and shopkeeper have a conversation in the background. The viewer is among the crowd rather than above it. Luks puts a positive spin on the Lower East Side by showing two young girls dancing in The Spielers, which is a type of dance that working class immigrants would engage in; despite the poverty, children dance on the street. He looks for the joy and beauty in the life of the poor rather than the tragedy.

William Glackens

Early in his career, William Glackens (1870-1938) painted the neighborhood surrounding his studio in Washington Square Park. He also was a successful commercial illustrator, producing numerous drawings and watercolors for contemporary magazines that humorously portrayed New Yorkers in their daily lives. Later in life, he was much better known as "the American Renoir" for his Impressionist views of the seashore and the French Riviera.

John Sloan

John Sloan (1871-1951) was an early-20th-century Realist of the Ashcan School, whose concerns with American social conditions led him to join the Socialist Party in 1910. Originally from Philadelphia, he worked in New York after 1904. From 1912 to 1916, he contributed illustrations to the socialist monthly The Masses. Sloan disliked propaganda, and in his drawings for The Masses, as in his paintings, he focused on the everyday lives of people. He depicted the leisure of the working class with an emphasis on female subjects. Among his best known works are Picnic Grounds and Sunday, Women Drying their Hair. He disliked the Ashcan School label, and expressed his annoyance with art historians who identified him as a painter of the American Scene: "Some of us used to paint little rather sensitive comments about the life around us. We didn't know it was the American Scene. I don't like the name ... A symptom of nationalism, which has caused a great deal of trouble in this world."

Edward Hopper

Edward Hopper (1882-1967) was a prominent American realist painter and printmaker. Hopper is the most modern of the American realists, and the most contemporary. While most popularly known for his oil paintings, he was equally proficient as a watercolorist and printmaker in etching. In both his urban and rural scenes, his spare and finely calculated renderings reflected his personal vision of modern American life.

Hopper's teacher, Robert Henri, encouraged his students to use their art to "make a stir in the world". He also advised his students, It isnt the subject that counts but what you feel about it and Forget about art and paint pictures of what interests you in life. In this manner, Henri influenced Hopper, as well as famous students George Bellows and Rockwell Kent, and motivated them to render realistic depictions of urban life. Some artists in Henri's circle, including another teacher of Hoppers, John Sloan, became members of The Eight, also known as the Ashcan School of American Art. His first existing oil painting to hint at his famous interiors was Solitary Figure in a Theater (c. 1904). During his student years, Hopper also painted dozens of nudes, still lifes, landscapes, and portraits, including his self-portraits.



  • Brooks, Van Wyck (1955). John Sloan. New York: Dutton.
  • Doezema, Marianne, and Elizabeth Milroy (1998). Reading American Art. New Haven: Yale University Press. (pps. 311) ISBN0300073488.
  • Loughery, John (1997). John Sloan: Painter and Rebel. New York: Holt. ISBN0-8050-5221-6
  • Pohl, Frances K. (2002). Framing America: A Social History of American Art. New York, N.Y.: Thames & Hudson. (pp.302312) ISBN0500283346.

External links

  • American Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, a fully digitized 3 volume exhibition catalog
  • Music: New Generations of Songwriters
  • Literature: American Realism
  • Literature: American Realism

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