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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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A snowy street with a horse and carriage is flanked to each side by tall buildings in this vertical painting. The overcast scene is loosely painted with visible brushstrokes throughout, so some details are difficult to make out. The buildings to each side are painted in tones of coffee and earth brown along the street, and oatmeal brown and slate gray for the buildings farther from us. Two-story houses with steps leading down to the street line the composition to each side, and the taller buildings beyond stretch off the top edge of the canvas. Closest to us and to our right, the horse and carriage move away from us. Painted with a few strokes in black, golden yellow, and crimson red, people walk or stand along both sides of the street. A single lamppost stands about halfway back along the street to our left. The globe dangles from the curved top of the lamppost. The snow is painted in tones of ivory and cream white. In the distance, the sky between the buildings is parchment brown. The artist signed and dated the painting in the lower left corner, “Robert Henri Mar 5 1902.”

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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From a darkened arena around a boxing ring, we look up at two bare chested men, one with pale, white skin and the other with brown skin, who lock arms in a boxing match in this horizontal painting. The brushstrokes are loose and visible throughout, making some details difficult to make out. The boxer to our left wears drooping, forest-green trunks and black shoes. He leans back on his bent right leg, closer to us, and tilts his face up. His mouth gapes open and his nose, chin, and neck are smeared with scarlet red, suggesting blood. His pale skin has a green cast, and his chest, arms, and legs are sinewy and muscular. His right arm is raised or pulled up overhead by the boxer to our right. Wearing dark briefs, the second boxer hunches over with head lowered toward the other man’s shoulder. He surges forward onto his deeply bent left knee, closer to us, pushing powerfully off his back leg. His face is lost in shadow and his body has less detail than his opponent, though light glints off his arching back to create gold highlights against his brown skin along his spine, ribs, and muscles of the shoulder. The men’s bodies nearly span the height of the canvas. The black ropes of the boxing ring pass in front of and behind the boxers, and the space around the ring in the top half of the painting is nearly black. Heads and faces of the spectators in the first few rows are lit by the main event and are crowded into the bottom third of the painting. Two spectators on our far left have climbed up and lean on and through the ropes, their mouths open. The crowd, which appears to be all light-skinned men and boys, are painted loosely but their mouths widen in toothy grins or are agape. The artist signed the work in yellow letters against black in the lower right corner: “Geo Bellows.”

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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A six-story, narrow building stands alone in an otherwise unoccupied lot under the deck of a high bridge, with a river and cityscape in the background in this horizontal painting. Dozens of people, small in scale, are each painted with a few swipes of black and some with peach-colored faces. They gather at the foot of the building and around a fire to our left, near the lower left corner of the composition. The fire is painted with a dash of orange, a few touches of canary yellow, and a smudge of gray smoke. Several more people stand and sit against the building, which has a streetlamp near its entrance. The back end of the building angles away from us to our right, so we see the narrow, front entrance side to our left. Each of the six floors of the building has two windows with fire escape ladders on the narrow side we can see. Some strokes in red and white on the lower levels of the long, flat side of the building suggest signs or posters. The top story glows a warm sienna brown in sunlight, while the rest of the building and the scene below are in shadow. More people walk along a grayish-violet fence that encloses the lot beyond the building. The ground is painted thickly with slate gray, pale, sage green, and one smear of white to suggest snow. To our right and a short distance from us, a white horse pulls a carriage near the foot of the bridge. The ivory-white, concrete piling rises up and off the right edge of the canvas and supports the deck of the bridge above. Only a sliver of the brick-red underside of the bridge is visible, skimming the top edge of the painting in the upper right corner. Two twiggy, barren trees grow up beyond the muted purple fence, and the landscape beyond is bright in the sunlight. A terracotta-orange building rises along the left edge of the painting, with the area between it and the lot under the bridge filled with thickly painted patches of butter yellow, amethyst purple, and sage green. Beyond that, an ice-blue river flows across the composition. The shore beyond is lined with patches of beige and tan paint that could be buildings. A black tugboat puffs bright white smoke in the river. The sky above is frosty white. The artist signed the work with dark blue in the lower left corner of the painting, “Geo Bellows.”

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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From a high vantage point, we look across and down at a nighttime cityscape of buildings and an elevated train in this horizontal painting. Muted tones of brick red, mustard yellow, plum purple, and avocado green dominate the buildings in the scene. Shadowy buildings of various heights fill the left side closest to us. We look down onto most of their roofs, and a building on the far left at about our eye level is topped by a water tower. The red-brick and muted green facades of two buildings facing us are illuminated by a harsh light from below, but our view is blocked by a dark rooftop closer to us. A sign on one of the lit buildings reads “MOONSHINE.” A dark brown train on an elevated rail line snakes from beyond these buildings to curve toward us in the center of the composition. Two cars drive under or alongside the rail line, and indistinct forms on a corner between them suggest people. To the right of the train stands a twelve-story triangular building that reaches of the top edge of the canvas. The narrow side facing us is only slightly wider than a single window. From there, the left and right sides of the building flare out to create a triangular footprint. Some windows are lit, and some are dark. Beyond these buildings, more muted red, yellow, and green buildings in the middle distance are also lit from below. Tiny windows of three more high-rise buildings gleam in the distance on the horizon, which comes about three-quarters of the way up the composition. Pale, rose-pink buildings are piled high in the deep distance in the upper left. They shimmer against the cloud-filled, plum-purple and mauve-pink sky. The artist signed the lower left, “John Sloan.”

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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