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American Realists of the Early 1900s


With forty percent of the United States' population living in urban environments by 1900, the city began to replace the countryside as an intriguing subject for American writers and painters. Also, these city dwellers' demands for illustrated newspapers and magazines meant that many artists in the early twentieth century trained as sketch reporters who could quickly capture the action at fires or strikes, sports events or theater premieres.

A leading realist, Robert Henri was an influential teacher to many young graphic artists and painters. In 1908, Henri joined seven of his students and friends to form The Eight and to stage a group exhibition in New York City. Several of The Eight—by painting scenes of daily life in back alleys and barrooms, on dockyards and tenement rooftops—soon became known popularly as the Ashcan School.

Robert Henri, American, 1865 - 1929, Catharine, 1913, oil on canvas, Given in memory of Mr. and Mrs. William J. Johnson, 1948.7.1

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Robert Henri urged his students in Philadelphia and New York to reject idealism and to focus instead on reality, whether it be banal or harsh. “Draw your material from the life around you, from all of it. There is beauty in everything if it looks beautiful to your eyes. You can find it anywhere, everywhere.”

Henri's Snow in New York depicts ordinary brownstone apartments hemmed in by city blocks of humdrum office buildings. This calm, stable geometry adds to the hush of new-fallen snow. The exact date inscribed—March 5, 1902—implies the canvas was painted in a single session. Its on-the-spot observations and spontaneous sketchiness reveal gray slush in the traffic ruts and yellow mud on the horsecart'’s wheels.

Robert Henri, American, 1865 - 1929, Snow in New York, 1902, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, 1954.4.3

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A robust and vigorous man, George Bellows played semiprofessional baseball before moving to New York City to study art under Robert Henri. There, Bellows found that corruption had made public boxing illegal. Private sport clubs managed to circumvent the law, but they also barred the fighters, who were deemed socially unacceptable, from joining. The title of Both Members of This Club refers to the practice of granting “membership” to boxers only for the duration of their bouts. Bellows indicated his low opinion of the elitist crowd by converting them into grotesque caricatures roaring approval of the bloodshed. Creating a sense of immediacy, three rows of spectators block off our view, and the ringside ropes loom overhead.

The location is Tom Sharkey's Athletic Club. (Sharkey's is also the setting for Bellows' Club Night of 1907 in the National Gallery, the first of his six oil paintings of boxing matches.) The black contestant is Joe Gans, lightweight champion for eight years. Gans' famous “right punch after blocking a lead” may have led Bellows to record that maneuver for its own sake.

George Bellows, American, 1882 - 1925, Both Members of This Club, 1909, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, 1944.13.1

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The Lone Tenement generates both a powerful image of urban dislocation and a poignant allegory of time's passage. The last remaining building underneath the approaches to the new Queensboro Bridge stands alone, everything else in the neighborhood having long since been razed. The oppressive roadway crushes down from the top of the picture, and its span's dark shadow against the red brick tenement seems to foretell the apartment building's doom.

The whole composition directs attention to the bridge's architectural mass. Pointed up toward the black roadway from below, a system of vertical elements marches left to right. A factory smokestack, two lifeless tree trunks, the masts of a moored ship, the slender tenement itself, and smoke from a ship on the East River all lead across the canvas to the bridge's heavy pier. The powerful design and the superb handling of earthy umbers, ochers, and siennas make it difficult to believe that George Bellows had moved to New York and begun painting only five years before.

George Bellows, American, 1882 - 1925, The Lone Tenement, 1909, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.83

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John Sloan, once a newspaper illustrator in Philadelphia, became a painter at the urging of Robert Henri and moved to New York. The apparent spontaneity in Sloan’'s The City from Greenwich Village is deceptive. Noting it was “painted from memory,” Sloan made more preparatory studies for this canvas than for any of his other pictures.

One pencil sketch shows the elevated train tracks at the slight angle they would create from a sixth-story rooftop. In the final oil painting, the railway is pushed down at a steeper perspective, opening the foreground into a vast space of reflections off wet pavement. The soaring Woolworth Building dominates the distant skyscrapers. Since that shimmering vision actually would not have been visible from this low level, the skyline derives from other studies done at higher elevations.

Sloan described the personally meaningful site: “Looking south over lower Sixth Avenue from the roof of my Washington Place studio, on a winter evening. The distant lights of the great office buildings downtown are seen in the gathering darkness. The triangular loft building on the right had contained my studio for three years before.”

John Sloan, American, 1871 - 1951, The City from Greenwich Village, 1922, oil on canvas, Gift of Helen Farr Sloan, 1970.1.1

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