“Had all the saloons been conducted with the dignity and decorum of McSorley’s, prohibition would never have come about,” John Sloan once said of his favorite watering hole and the subject of his famous painting, McSorley’s Bar (above). In the Detroit Institute of Arts’ current exhibition Life’s Pleasures: The Ashcan Artists’ Brush with Leisure, 1895-1925, we see the Ashcan school at play, enjoying the pastimes of what Vincent DiGirolamo calls in the exhibition catalogue the “Age of Amusement.” “Their art allows us to trace the tumultuous origins of our own diverse, pleasure-obsessed consumer society,” DiGirolamo writes. In this exhibition, we turn away from the gritty urban realism more commonly associated with the Ashcan school and see an undervalued but highly relevant side of their art and the society they documented. “They celebrated the performance, the performer, or the audience through their canvases,” James W. Tottis, Associate Curator of American Art at the DIA and curator of the exhibition, sums up neatly in the catalogue.
Tottis traces the sticky label of the “Ashcan school” to an attack in 1916 in the socialist magazine The Masses directed at a specific drawing by George Bellows of scavenging hoboes titled “Disappointments of the Ashcan.” Although the Ashcan artists certainly depicted the reality of urban life, with all its inherent darkness, they also showed it’s lighter, fun side, which they saw as just as “true” to the existence they themselves enjoyed. Following the lead of Robert Henri, the Ashcan School not only painted what they knew and loved but went out of their way to live the “strenuous” American existence extolled by Theodore Roosevelt at that time. The Henri circle became, in Tottis’ phrase, a “counterculture fraternity,” enjoying baseball (Bellows was a college baseball star who nearly turned pro), boxing, and even brawling with the students of the mainstream Art Students’ League. The Ashcan artists were literally in the thick of the action, as seen in Bellows’ Dempsey and Firpo (above). When Luis Angel Firpo knocked Jack Dempsey through the ropes of the ring, the champ landed on Bellows, at least according to the artist. You can see Bellows cowering beneath the plummeting body of Dempsey in the painting. This exhibition of leisure images by the Ashcan artists contains many portraits of the artists themselves at the beach, in cafes, and otherwise enjoying the middle class entertainments they celebrate.
“Leisure activities and entertainment offerings burgeoned with the decrease in hours in the workweek, the increasing accessibility and affordability of transportation, the advent of electrification, and a boom in entrepreneurial commercialization,” writes Valerie Ann Leeds in her essay, “Pictorial Pleasures: Leisure Themes and the Henri Circle.” The café life, a familiar subject of the French Impressionists, becomes a vital element of the life and art of the Ashcan artists. William Glackens' Chez Mouquin (above) shows a typical scene in which an older man (James B. Moore, owner of the rival Café Francis) enjoys the company of a young woman whom Moore would pass of as his “daughter” but was most likely one of the many “charity girls” who offered companionship (and possibly more) in exchange for gifts, a phenomenon Marianne Doezema examines in her essay “Representing Women.” Such scenes of people enjoying good times and good conversation follow DiGirolamo’s emphasis on the power of verbal communication during this period. “Hobnobbing in this milieu was not just about escaping the pressures of work,” DiGirolamo writes, “but also about engaging with the power of such ideas as anarchism, socialism, cubism, free love, and psychoanalysis.” The Henri Circle plunged headlong into the exchange of ideas as easily as into the waters off of Coney Island.
Between the art of the Ashcan artists presented here and the accompanying catalogue essays, you come away with not only a new appreciation of the versatility of this group but also of the period in which they worked. The Bellows of the famous boxing paintings is also the Bellows of painted scenes of more refined pursuits as tennis and even polo (above). Nothing escaped the inquisitive, expansive eye of this group of artists committed to depicting every nuance of their surroundings, regardless of apparent class differences. “Their art conveys in precise, human terms such abstract historical processes as industrialization, immigration, and urbanization,” DiGirolama writes in the catalogue essay exemplifying the artists’ spirit best in presenting every stratum of early twentieth century society. DiGirolama explains how leisure became a societal issue as progressives promoted play as a necessary educational tool for children. To read that 132 daily and weekly newspapers were available in New York alone around 1900, 52 of which were in languages other than English, is to get a wholly different picture of a literate, worldly curious population grossly misrepresented by the stereotypical presentation of the Ashcan School.
Courtyard at Dusk, Robert Spencer, ca.1915, oil on canvas, 30 x 36 1/8 in., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
The urban realism is, of course, still the main thrust of the Henri circle’s art, but this exhibition redefines what that realism entails. Robert Spencer’s Courtyard at Dusk (above) shows tenement dwellers beating the heat and escaping the drearier realities of their lives by gathering in a courtyard to enjoy some companionship. Works by Jerome Myers, whom Henri excluded from exhibitions for being too sentimental, appears here as clearly in tune with the Ashcan spirit. “My love was my witness in recording these earnest, simple lives,” Myers once said, “these visions of the slums clothed in dignity, never to me mere slums but the habitations of a people who were rich in spirit and effort.” As DiGirolama puts it succinctly, the Ashcan artists’ brush with leisure “does not make them hopeless romantics; to capture humor and joy is to apprehend genuine aspects of reality… civilization is as much about homo ludens (people at play) as about homo faber (people at work).” In engaging in the common life of people at play, the Ashcan artists at work not only helped record their era but helped shape American civilization as we know it today. To reclaim this aspect of their art is to reclaim a lost part of our heritage—the reasons why we play the games that we do as re-creation and not just distraction. Instead of “amusing ourselves to death,” as Neil Postman once put it, we need to look back through this exhibition to the days of the Ashcan artists and rediscover how to amuse ourselves back to life.
[Many thanks to the Detroit Institute of Arts for providing me with a review copy of the catalogue to Life’s Pleasures: The Ashcan Artists’ Brush with Leisure, 1895-1925 and for the images from the exhibition.]