The Ashcan School, also known as The Eight or the Immigrant Group, was a group of American realist painters formed in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. They were primarily associated with the magazine “The Masses” and espoused a politics that championed social justice and labor reform (Gale, 2010). Their works often depicted scenes from everyday life in urban neighborhoods—often marginalized by mainstream society—in vivid color and detail reflective of their belief in depicting reality without embellishment (Gale, 2010). In contrast to this unfiltered representation of urban life, art produced during the Gilded Age was characterized by opulent aesthetics reflecting its namesake: a period dominated by extreme wealth and grandiose displays of luxury. These works lacked an element of realism; instead focusing on classical themes such as mythology and idealized landscapes.
How and why was the art produced by the Ashcan School different from that of the Gilded Age? To what changes in social history were artists reacting
At the time, dramatic changes were occurring within America’s larger social fabric due to technological advances leading to rapid industrialization (McClure, 2016); these changes resulted in increased immigration into cities like New York which had previously been largely populated by wealthy elites (McClure, 2016). This influx caused overcrowding within urban areas resulting in what became known as tenement living conditions where poverty-stricken immigrants lived side-by-side with native citizens struggling against rising prices (McClure, 2016). It is evident then that members of The Ashcan School were reacting to these drastic alterations within their environment; hence why much of their work focused on capturing candid scenes from daily life usually set within densely populated city streets.
For instance John Sloan’s painting “Sixth Avenue El” showcases subways filled with people going about their daily lives while his painting “Fifth Avenue Afternoon” illustrates life for those living among towering buildings similar to those found along Manhattan’s most affluent avenue (Gale.,2010). By creating works such as these – often devoid from any aesthetic appeal – it was hope that viewers would be provided a stark contrast between affluence and poverty thus creating empathy for lower class citizens left voiceless amidst rapid industrialization. As Robert Henri – leader amongst The Ashcan School – stated: “if we can make [the spectator] see [the subject], we have created for him an appetite for knowledge” (Henri qtd. Gale.,2010); thus providing insight into how representations not only serve as vehicles through which one may understand current events but also become tools used towards sparking social reform efforts necessary when attempting to rectify economic disparities existing between classes during times like The Gilded Age.