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

by Valerie Ann Leeds



The work of Ernest Lawson, Arthur B. Davies, and Maurice Prendergast appears stylistically incongruous with other artists of The Eight and Henri's artistic circle. However, they were unified by ideological opposition to the National Academy's practices and recognition of the need for independent exhibitions of progressive art.

In the progressive movement's early years, Ernest Lawson executed his work in pallid hues and broken impressionistic brushstrokes. His idealized landscapes, which include poetic interpretations of New York City, appear closer to the Impressionists with whom he trained (John Henry Twachtman and J. Alden Weir) than Henri's realist movement.

Even Lawson's urban scenes appear inconsistent with an Ashcan identification, yet he exhibited with several of The Eight and other progressive artists well before the 1908 Macbeth Gallery exhibition. Rejected as an associate at the National Academy in 1907, Lawson's strengthened his affiliation with the Independent artists. He took part in the 1910 Independents' show and, later, the Armory Show. Lawson moved freely between the conservative establishment and anti-academic insurgents. Despite his active involvement in the alternative exhibitions, he later maintained a long relationship with the National Academy, and exhibited there throughout his career.

Lawson's primary concerns were recording his impressions of nature and the evocation of mood. River in Winter, an early, but mature, example of Lawson's work demonstrates his keen observation of light. Lawson had a propensity for painting dusk and winter landscapes in and around New York City, particularly the more remote areas along the Palisades, bridges, and surrounding rivers. These paintings often represent varying atmospheric effects and illustrate similar structural elements including boats, buildings, water, and landscape.

The works of Maurice Prendergast and Arthur B. Davies are the most distinctive and original of artists associated with the Independent Movement. Prendergast's unusual stylistic techniques in oil and watercolor are closely allied to modernism, though his sources appear to have derived largely from his own unique vision.

Prendergast, originally from Boston, was the elder of The Eight. At Henri's invitation, Prendergast first exhibited with the core group at the 1904 National Arts Club show. He continued to associate with the progressives, exhibiting in the 1910 Independents' show, enlisting in the Association of American Painters and Sculptors as a charter member, and working on the Armory Show's European and American selection committee. Prendergast's early influences can be traced through extended European encounters with Post- Impressionists (particularly Cézanne) and the Fauves, in the 1890s, and again in 1907.

As his style evolved, Prendergast's proclivity for bright colors, flattened forms, and spatial planes resulted in more highly decorative surfaces. His later work demonstrates a reductivist approach: broader style and fewer contours created an indistinct delineation of form. Forsaking detail and spatial perspective for interpretive style, as in Buck's Harbor, he never wholly abandoned representation. Prendergast's mosaic-like surfaces resonate with movement. At times, particularly in the oils, his paintings nearly resemble color abstractions.

Next to Henri, The Eight's most enigmatic and perplexing figure, Arthur B. Davies, wielded the most influence. The strength of his reputation, however, did not endure long after his death, perhaps, because the public was unable to reconcile his work with the popular artistic trends of the time. Davies commanded high regard from his peers. He began exhibiting with the progressives in the 1904 National Arts Club show. In 1907, the National Academy rejected Davies' nomination as an associate. He showed there only once, in 1908, though he enjoyed strong support among some wealthy society patrons.

Davies helped shape the 1910 Independent Exhibition, and became increasingly involved in the art world's more progressive concerns. Elected president of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors (the organizing body of the Armory Show), Davies was the landmark show's major creative and administrative force.

Davies dreamlike allegories and idyllic themes can be linked to visionary artists, like French painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, and Americans Albert Pinkham Ryder and Elihu Vedder. In Dweller on the Threshold, Davies portrayed mythical nymphs in Arcadian surroundings, painted with dense atmospheric effects. His naive style, simplification of form, and lugubrious palette, exhibit a soulful spirituality that is both mystical and evocative.

Davies' activism for progressive art has been largely overlooked since his death in 1928. His insistence on strong European avant-garde representation at the Armory Show intensified its stunning impact, while signalling the end of Henri's American progressive movement. Following the success of the 1910 Exhibition of Independent Artists, Davies (and several others) sought to undermine Henri's dominant position in contemporary art.

Jerome Myers, a painter and founding member of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, helped persuade Davies to head the organization, as Myers later recounted:

Thus it was that I, an American art patriot who painted ashcans and the little people around them, took part in inducing to become the head of our association the one artist in America who had little to do with his contemporaries, who had vast influence with the wealthiest women, who painted unicorns and maidens under moonlight. What I did not know was Davies' intense desire to show the modern art of Europe in America. But through his indefatigable energy, and the financial support he secured, he changed what was to have been an exhibition of American work into the great exhibition of foreign art that made The Armory Show so memorable.[9]

On the surface, Myers' work deals with themes similar to Henri, Sloan, Glackens, and Shinn: street scenes painted in an essentially realistic manner, though an underlying sentimentality is apparent in his views of ghetto life. He routinely used a somber, muted palette, using dark outlines to create a decorative effect, but The Gazebo exhibits unusually bright colors, and an abundance of white. From as early as 1887, Myers used New York streets as his primary subject matter, anticipating the other Ashcan painters.

George Bellows was a close associate of Henri, The Eight, and other progressive artists. His work shared many of the same essential attributes, though he was not involved in the 1908 exhibition. Bellows belonged to a group of younger realists that included Guy Pène du Bois, Eugene Speicher, Edward Hopper, Gifford Beal, and Rockwell Kent (all of whom Henri taught at the New York School of Art). Bellows regarded Henri as a close friend and artistic mentor.

Bellows' early success in both academic and independent circles put him in a unique position. His brash Ashcan School realism was accepted by Henri and the more progressive artists, as well as the academicians. Remarkably, he was awarded a National Academy prize for an entry in 1908, and, the following year, was elected an associate at the age of twenty-seven.

Bellows' early work reflected that of his mentor's, as did a number of Henri's students, though their teacher discouraged imitation. By 1905, when Bellows painted May Day in Central Park, he had begun to define his own style. But Henri's waning influence is still present in the work's intensity of colors and thick, vigorous brushwork. Bellows' subject may have been prompted by other colleagues, notably Glackens and Prendergast (who also painted May Day scenes), and Henri, who did a number of Central Park views.[10]

Like other Ashcan artists, New York City commonly inspired Bellows. Silver Day shows a view of the East River overlooking Blackwell's Island (now Roosevelt Island), from just north of the Queensborough Bridge. Its cool palette and thickly applied paint clearly conveys the raw, blustery cold of a snowy day, the weather Bellows favored.

But portraits such as Lillian give evidence of Bellows' artistic versatility. Showing the powerful imprint of his teacher, Bellows' early portraits mimicked Henri's dark backgrounds and bold painterly style. In his mature endeavors, like Lillian, the predominant characteristics are the striking interplay of light and dark, and the flattened spatial planes, with simplified forms and features. Lillian, painted during Bellows' 1916 visit to Camden, Maine, likely depicts one of his neighbors.

George Bellows introduced Leon Kroll into Henri's orbit of progressive artists. In 1911, Kroll began showing in the MacDowell Club exhibitions with other Independents. Academically trained, Kroll worked in a forthright, painterly style with strong, dazzling colors. He was closely involved with a number of Henri's circle, Kroll's work was often closer in spirit to Bellows, though he professed to being influenced by the Impressionists, and, later, Cézanne. [11]

Lone Farm demonstrates Kroll's stylistic traits: the rich coloration and unusual vantage points also frequently employed by Bellows. Kroll and Bellows visited Maine in 1913, 1915, and 1916. Lone Farm was painted during an extended sojourn to Ogunquit, Maine, in the summer of 1915. Open to a number of themes, Kroll was adept and confident in a variety of painting genres. He produced numerous landscapes, figurative compositions, and a powerful group of paintings depicting areas in and around New York City.

After 1911, Henri's intimate circle of friends included Kroll, Bellows, Glackens, Sloan, and Speicher. Eugene Speicher took Henri's life-drawing class many years before; they became especially close towards the end of Henri's life. He was involved in a group that became known as The New Society of Artists. After the demise of the MacDowell Club exhibitions in 1919, The New Society held exhibitions of its own, promoting similarly liberal sympathies. Henri, Sloan, Glackens, Prendergast, Lawson, Myers, Bellows, Kent, Du Bois, and Gifford Beal were also in the group.

Firmly oriented in the realist tradition, Speicher is widely recognized for portraiture, though, like Kroll, he also painted figurative, landscape, and still-life compositions. Speicher aspired to goals similar to those Henri promoted in his classes. Still Lift with Flowers shows Speichers' energy, confidence, and bold brushwork that define contour and shape in his compositions. He primarily composed with strong, resonant colors, moving later towards a cooler, muted palette.

Edward Hopper exhibited one work in both the Exhibition of Independent Artists and Armory Show. A Henri protege, he also exhibited in MacDowell Club shows, though he remained somewhat aloof from the inner circle. By the mid-1920s, Hopper's own realist aesthetic emerged, comprised of genre scenes, landscapes, and urban views. His spare compositions, reduced to their most essential components, suggest an emotional remoteness.

Beginning in 1923, Hopper frequently painted in watercolor. His restrained style and control of the medium created successful results. In watercolor, Hopper often chose landscape subjects incorporating architectural elements, such as in Jenness House Looking North, which suited his exploration of light and geometrical planes. The watercolors are virtually devoid of the figurative component that provided the narrative in so many of his oils.


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