Artists & Designers

Ashcan School

The Ashcan School was an early 20th century movement of urban-realist painters. The group was not representative of an institution, but were affiliated for the purpose of exhibitions. The term “Ashcan” was not coined until 1916, well after their inception in the first decade of the 20th century.

The leading figure of the group was Robert Henri, who studied with Thomas Anschutz, a student of Thomas Eakins, at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts and then in Paris. While teaching in Philadelphia, Henri came to mentor four newspaper illustrators: William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan. These “Philadelphia Five” would all move to New York City by 1905 and eventually become known as the Ashcan School. A second generation of Ashcan artists consists of Henri’s New York students, most notably George Bellows.

The styles of the artists now considered part of the Ashcan School varied greatly. They were largely united by an interest in depicting the realities of urban life—a subject considered too ugly by the National Academy of Design. Henri described their art as “art for life’s sake,” rather than the “art for art’s sake” mantra popular at the time. For the most part, their styles were influenced by the dark palettes and painterly qualities of Goya and Manet. Photographers such as Jacob Riis are sometimes associated with the Ashcan School, but the painters generally employed less overt political messages in their works.

Because Henri and his students felt that the National Academy of Design was too restrictive, he organized an independent exhibition, now known as “The Eight” at the Macbeth Gallery in 1908. The exhibition was mostly well received and widely seen in New York and in many subsequent venues across the country. The Ashcan artists briefly occupied the avant-garde of American art before the rise of European modern art movements after the 1913 Armory Show.

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Fun Facts

  • By breaking away from an established art institution and exhibiting their work in a self-determined manner, The Eight followed the example of Gustave Courbet and his Salon des Refuses. Ten years earlier, a different, numbered group of American artists declared independence from the National Academy of Design. The Ten, a group of artists closely associated with the Society of American Artists, held their first exhibition in 1898 and include leading figures in the American Impressionist movement.

  • The exhibition of The Eight included the five Philadelphia Ashcan artists, in addition to Maurice Prendregast, Arthur B. Davies, and Ernest Lawson, who are not considered Ashcan artists.

Web Resources

  • The Ashcan School
    Read Barbara H. Weinberg's essay on this American art movement in the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (April 2010).

  • Smithsonian Institution
    Check out the cartoon that inspired the name "Ashcan School."