Ashcan of History 

New exhibit finds some of America’s greatest painters taking a little downtime

What do you do after your lowdown professional gambler of a dad hauls off and kills somebody, embarrassing everyone in the family so much they have to change their last name? Why, you become a painter of genius, of course.
What do you do after your lowdown professional gambler of a dad hauls off and kills somebody, embarrassing everyone in the family so much they have to change their last name? Why, you become a painter of genius, of course.

What’s more, if you’re Robert Henri, you go on to found an artistic movement that is among the most distinctive and original in American history.

Some striking examples of Henri’s work go on display Friday at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, in an exhibit called Life’s Pleasures: The Ashcan Artists’ Brush with Leisure, 1895-1925. The show, which runs through Oct. 28, also features the work of Henri’s most important disciples.

Collectively known as the Ashcan artists (a moniker that was originally intended as an insult), these painters were primarily concerned with depicting urban life at its grittiest. Staid and stuffy portraits of the upper classes were banished from their works. They were tireless champions of the underdog.

“Henri believed that artists should paint what’s real,” says Katie Delmez, a curator at the Frist. “So he and his followers headed into the tenements and painted the seedier sides of life. But they didn’t completely ignore the middle class, and they often depicted middle class life.”

New York City at the turn of the 20th century saw a huge rise in immigration, poverty and crime. But it also saw the emergence of a large middle class that had more disposable income and more leisure time than ever before.

“The Ashcan artists were part of the new middle class, and they were going to concerts and restaurants and parks with everyone else,” says Delmez. “Naturally they had an interest in depicting their own activities, and it’s the paintings they created of those activities that make up [the Frist] exhibit. Those paintings are all full of life. They immediately suggest the Ashcan artists’ time and place.”

When it came to capturing the zeitgeist of early 20th century urban life, the Ashcan artists were exceptionally well qualified. Several of them—William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn and John Sloan—had been newspaper illustrators for the Philadelphia Press. So they knew a thing or two about sketching reality.

Henri knew about reality as well, and he was quick to reject the prevailing fin-de-siècle ideal of art for art’s sake. He encouraged his followers to “paint what you feel…paint what is real.”

Henri’s early life had been all too real. Born Robert Henry Cozad in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1865, the future artist grew up the son of a real character. John Jackson Cozad was both a gambler and a real estate developer, and he treated both as if they were the same profession.

In 1871 he founded a town in Ohio named, appropriately enough, Cozaddale. When that speculation didn’t work out, he moved the family west to Nebraska, where he founded a town named (what else?) Cozad.

But in 1882, Cozad got into a fight with a rancher over the right to some cattle pasture. He shot and killed the man, and though he was later cleared of wrongdoing, his family name had been permanently soiled. So everyone in the clan assumed new identities, with Robert playing off his middle name. (He pronounced his new surname HEN-rye.)

Henri enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia in 1883. Five years later, he went to Paris to study with William-Adolphe Bouguereau at the Académie Julian. He was eventually admitted to the prestigious École des Beaux Arts, where he embraced French Impressionism.

But back in America in the early 1890s, Henri began to reconsider Impressionism and any other style of painting he considered academic. He began painting spontaneously, using quick brushstrokes and thick layers of paint. More importantly, he began choosing subjects that were as far removed from academe as he could find.

For its exhibit, which was organized by the Detroit Institute of the Arts, the Frist has divided the 71 Ashcan paintings into four main sections: fine and performing arts, sports and recreation, bars and cafés and the outdoors.

Ashcan artists seemed to enjoy every kind of performing art. They attended lowbrow carnivals and highbrow operas, and they found equal amounts of inspiration in both.

Henri got the idea for one of his greatest paintings after attending a performance of Richard Strauss’ Salome at the Metropolitan Opera in 1907. Strauss’ opera was full of violent and sexually explicit material—the controversial production was banned after just one performance. Henri’s painting does the opera justice.

It features Salome herself, a sensuous young woman who looks like a character right out of The Thousand and One Nights. Henri saw the famed soprano Mary Garden in the production, but he used a model for his “Salome.” His 1909 image of a slinky seductress, complete with utterly sexy and bare midriff, no doubt turned a few heads.

Ashcan paintings of sporting events could be just as realistic, even graphic. Painter George Bellows’ “Dempsey and Firpo” (1924) shows famed heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey being knocked clear out of the ring. “You can feel the violence,” says Delmez.

Interestingly, the Ashcan artists created scenes of bars and restaurants that seemed just as energetic as their sports paintings. One of the most evocative is John Sloan’s “McSorley’s Bar” from 1912. Sloan used dark colors to suggest the griminess of the place. Yet the image, with its bantering beer drinkers, seems as happy and lively as an episode of Cheers.

Long before Robert Moses paved his famous parkways to the beaches of Long Island, New Yorkers were constantly searching for outdoor sanctuary. The most famous getaway, of course, has always been Central Park, and it was a favorite haunt of the Ashcan artists.

William Glackens captures the joy of the place in “Central Park, Winter” from 1905, which showed children sledding down the park’s snowy slopes. He also painted the park in spring, and his “May Day, Central Park” from 1905 is positively brimming with the energy of New Yorkers enjoying their festive romps in the park.“That painting is like so many of the images you’ll see at our exhibit,” says Delmez. “The Ashcan artists knew how to paint the bustle of life. They knew how to paint joy.”

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