The Independents: The Ashcan School & Their Circle from Florida Collections

by Valerie Ann Leeds



The Armory Show included more than 1,300 works of art -- approximately one third by foreign artists. A Committee on Domestic Exhibits, chaired by William Glackens, selected the American works. Henri was assigned to the Committee on Foreign Exhibits, though Kuhn and Davies, with Walter Pach, chose most of the entries. American audiences were introduced to the art of the Impressionists, Post Impressionists, Expressionists, Fauves, and Cubists for the first time. Works by Constantin Brancusi, Marcel Duchamp, Henri Matisse, Wassily Kandinsky, Francis Picabia, and Odilon Redon proved most provocative, and in some cases, shocking to the public and critics.

The Armory Show unseated Henri as a leader of the American avant-garde. Juxtaposed with European modernists, American realists looked retrogressive and provincial, and though influential in the course of American art, the Armory Show negated Henri's nationalistic philosophy of art.

Reform of the National Academy was never fully achieved. An artists' group led by Walter Pach -- and later joined by William Glackens and Maurice Prendergast -- continued offering exhibitions through an independent organization, the Society of Independent Artists, which held exhibitions annually from 1917 through 1944.[6] Henri and many associates, including John Sloan, Ernest Lawson, George Luks, George Bellows, Rockwell Kent, and Gifford and Reynolds Beal, actively participated in the society.

At the time, the Society's exhibitions were seen as the most suitable alternative for artists seeking a less restrictive, more tolerant arena. Though not the only independently organized exhibitions of the early twentieth century, these were the principal ones responsible for fostering a greater understanding and interest in progressive art.

Robert Henri's influential leadership and inspirational tutelage often overshadowed his painting reputation. He was especially noted for portraiture, interpreting human life with a freedom and vitality reflected in his canvases. His portraits reveal reverence for mankind in all its diversity. With expressive line, color, and rapid, animated brushwork, he captured fresh characterizations and the discrete personalities of each sitter.

Henri's facility for rendering youthful subjects is particularly evident in Francine, subtitled "Lovey." Henri repainted various aspects of this portrait on four separate occasions, between April 10, 1921 and May 22, 1922. In his diary, he made extensive color and palette notations, explaining: ''The reason for the making of these notes is that I like the picture very much and wish to remember it in all details. Its character, color, composition, painting, drawing-all very free and constructive."[7] This represents a departure from his usual working methods; he generally worked with great speed, rarely repainting or reworking passages. It is also unusual that Henri attempted only one portrait of the young model. He usually produced several variations of a subject for which he had expressed a strong affinity.

John Sloan was a follower and close friend of Henri's, particularly in their earlier years. Sloan's rugged individualism and liberal leanings reinforced his advocacy for artistic freedom. Along with Henri, Sloan was one of the most actively involved progressive artists, exhibiting in all the important alternative art shows, including every one held by the Society of Independent Artists. He served as the organization's president from 1918 through 1944.

Largely self-taught, with the exception of some evening classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts with Thomas Anshutz, Sloan began as an illustrator. His talent for drawing and etching enabled him to convey the essence of a scene or caricature with economy of line. Sloan captured humor, irony, satire, poignancy, and dramatic narrative with perceptive characterizations, acutely crafted compositions, and whimsical draftsmanship.

Sloan's recognition as a painter made slow and uneven progress. Until 1916, he had to work as a commercial artist to support himself. As his painting facility developed, Sloan assimilated aspects of his skillful draftsmanship into his canvases. Especially in the early years, his work often reflected characteristic tendencies of the Ashcan School. He frequently chose subjects from his immediate surroundings, urban life, and scenes of the locales he visited. His paintings are commonly associated with New York street scenes, though he painted numerous and various landscape compositions, and figurative subjects as well.

Sloan's time in Gloucester, Massachusetts between 1914 and 1918, inspired a new approach and visibly distinct changes in his work. Though he had already acquired an abiding interest in pseudo-scientific theories of color, Sloan's Gloucester paintings acquired brighter, higher-keyed color values, inspired by the European modernists he saw at the Armory Show.

Besides New York City and Gloucester, Santa Fe became an important influence on Sloan's work. It provided a rich, new visual vocabulary seen in paintings such as Cliff Dwellers' Country. Sloan first visited Santa Fe in 1919, at Henri's recommendation. With the exception of 1933, Sloan spent extended time there every year between 1919 and 1950.8

William Glackens was a close Philadelphia friend and colleague of both Sloan and Henri. He also took evening classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts while working as an illustrator. Glackens' drawing style bears an affinity to Sloan's graphic work and their common background in illustration.

Like Sloan's, Glackens' early work followed Henri's lead by maintaining strong ties to Edouard Manet's darkened palette and brushy style of realism. However, by 1910, Glackens started moving towards an impressionistic style of feathered brushwork, with a brightened palette inspired by French Impressionist Auguste Renoir. Glackens became increasingly influenced by Renoir's style, evident in his broken brushstrokes, softened approach, and choice of subjects. Flowers on a Palm Leaf and Josephine with Flowers embody his ability to synthesize Renoir's stylistic attributes with a distinctively American sensibility.

More readily than Henri, Glackens embraced the forward-looking European art, particularly in his later work. His paintings become more stylized and gestural, with strong colors suggesting Fauve and Post-Impressionist influences.

George Luks was another member of Henri's Philadelphia clique. Boisterous and well-liked, he had also worked as a newspaper illustrator and participated in Henri's 1904 National Arts Club show. The rejection of one of his paintings from the 1907 National Academy annual, in part, prompted Henri to initiate arrangements for The Eight exhibition at the Macbeth Galleries. Luks exhibited in the Armory Show, but decided not to show in the 1910 Independent Exhibition, as he was occupied with preparations for his first one-man show held at the Macbeth Galleries. Luks' only showing at the National Academy was posthumous.

Luks shunned conventionality. His penchant for painting from life included street scenes (particularly New York's Lower East Side), urchins, beggars, entertainers, and workers, though he painted a variety of more traditional portraits and landscapes. Notwithstanding his subject matter, a rugged stylistic bravado characterizes Luks' paintings, connecting much of his work to the Ashcan School aesthetic.

Luks earned a loyal following among colleagues for his talents, though the unconventional aspects of his work relegated him to the periphery of the mainstream art world. Like the others, Luks began with a dark palette. As he matured, he slowly cultivated a brighter, varied spectrum of color. With an Ashcan-type subject, The Award, Luks' complex multi-figurative composition demonstrates the artist's penchant for more vivid hues.

Also associated with the Ashcan School, Everett Shinn's work focuses on scenic narrative. The bleak observances of daily life in metropolitan New York reveal his skilled draftsmanship and his start as a reporter-illustrator. After The Eight exhibition, he showed in the 1910 Independent Exhibition, but did not participate in the Armory Show. By 1913, Shinn lost interest in the goals of Henri's set, moving away from tough realism and city views to mural commissions, art direction, and theatrical design, and his work at this time becomes more stylized and decorative.

Aspects of Shinn's art emulated French painter Edgar Degas. Particularly in his early work, Shinn portrayed corresponding themes: women occupied with their toilette, nightclub performers, vaudevillians, theater, orchestra, dance, and ballet scenes, as seen in The Blue Girdle and Vaudeville. Shinn's allusions to Degas extend to style and compositional arrangement. He used similarly unusual vantage points, with dramatic lighting, in numerous theatrical subjects. A hallmark of Shinn's style was his ability to capture dramatic tension, heightened in these examples with spotlights and the dimmed illumination over the audience.


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