The past year has been a series of cancellations, postponed plans, and suppressed wanderlust. Personally, I have missed the experience of participating in one of my favorite urban activities: people watching. This is why I was drawn to the crowded streets, theaters, beaches, parks, and subways found in the works on display in Ashcan School Prints and the American City, 1900–1940.
Conceived when the notion of social distancing was unheard of, the prints in the exhibition, made primarily in New York City, cover 40 years of urban realism. The first wave of urban realists—labeled the “Ashcan School” for their apparently dingy subject matter—formed at the Art Students League around painter Robert Henri in 1903. Henri, John Sloan, William J. Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn, and later George Bellows were interested in depicting the gritty, everyday life of a city exploding with a changing and overflowing population. Of the Ashcan artists, Sloan and Bellows embraced printmaking, inspired by the drawing-like effects of etching and lithography, and influenced by the cartoons and caricatures found in the popular press. To source subject matter for his work, Sloan took daily walks around New York from his home in Greenwich Village or peered out the back windows of his apartment building. He was fascinated by the suddenly ubiquitous independent young women, going to and from jobs or spending their wages on inexpensive entertainments like those in Fun, One Cent. His etchings capture the hustle and bustle of the city and the experience that uniquely characterizes urban life—that of seeing and being seen at the same time.
Bellows was fascinated by the unvarnished side of the city, such as the cramped tenement district in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, packed with immigrants from all over the world, whose social lives played out in public parks and streets. His lithograph Solitude highlights the sanctuary of city parks for couples stealing away from crowded apartments in search of intimate, if not exactly private, moments. Bellows often placed spectators in his prints—as here, at far left—to suggest a connection between the observer and the viewer of the image. Drawn from the CMA’s holdings and the collection of Print Club member Stephen Dull, these prints, and those of a second generation of urban realists of the 1920s and 1930s—including Mabel Dwight, Reginald Marsh, and Edward Hopper—celebrate the invigorating pleasures that characterize life in the city, which I view with some longing today.