PRINT March 1979

Anti-Realism and the Ashcan School

ROBERY HENRI, THE FOUNDER OF the so-called Ashcan School, once offered the following advice to his students: “Low art is just telling things, as, there is the night. High art gives the feel of night. The latter is nearer reality although the former is a copy. . . . Reality does not exist in material things. Rather paint the flying spirit of the bird than its feathers.”1 Such an antipositivist statement from his book The Art Spirit suggests that we should reconsider the “realistic” reputation of Henri and the artists of his circle.

At the turn of the century, the group, which also included John Sloan, William Glackens, George Luks and Everett Shinn, began to champion straightforward portrayal of the lower class, urban environment. John Sloan’s Carmine Theater of 1912—one of the few paintings by a member of Henri’s circle actually to incorporate a trash can—typifies an unidealized treatment of commonplace subject matter that differed greatly from the academic classicism of a Kenyon Cox or the sentimental genre approach of a Thomas Hovenden. Historians of American art have identified this antiacademic style as “Realism.” In 1937, a major exhibition at the Whitney Museum entitled “New York Realists” reinforced the popular acceptance of this label, which reappears in almost every text on American art. Yet closer scrutiny suggests that in style and theory the early work of the Ashcan School deviated as much from realistic as from academic norms. Let us consider the actual degree of “realism” or “antirealism” attained by Robert Henri and John Sloan, the two leading members of the Ashcan School in the years between 1890 and 1913.

Such an analysis requires a working definition of “realism” in painting. This question has preoccupied both artists and philosophers, generating an enormous literature, particularly on realism and the related problem of naturalism. The terms “realism” and “naturalism” are often used interchangeably to describe a literary or artistic style that avoids idealization in favor of accurate reportage. In philosophy, however, these terms denote two antithetical views. According to the dictates of philosophical realism, the objects of cognition exist independently from the mind which perceives them (this acceptance of what is known as an “informing substance” does not preclude the possibility of spiritual existence). On the other hand, naturalism derives from the Greek tradition of materialism that sought to explain the universe solely through sensory evidence.2

In the analysis of style in Western painting, this significant distinction between philosophical realism and naturalism is often blurred. In the mid-19th century, “realism” came to denote the “democratic art” of Courbet, Daumier and Millet, while “naturalism” has been used as a label for the sociological determinism of Zola’s experimental novel. In spite of the historical and political connotations which naturalism and realism acquired in the 19th century, the essential philosophical distinction between realist and naturalist esthetics survived. The realist—represented by Courbet—aims to record visual data accurately, because he recognizes these data as signs of an existence beyond himself. The naturalist, represented by Manet before his Impressionist phase, records visual data because such optical sensations denote limits of human knowledge. Realism in art is potentially conceptual and naturalism, by comparison, remains perceptual, although both can result in a mimetic art that imitates the appearance of the external world.

With these definitions in mind, we can turn to the question of “antirealism” in the painting of Henri and Sloan, two of the leading members of the Ashcan School, inquiring first whether their work conforms either to realism or naturalism in the philosophical sense of those terms. Then we may see how artistic selectivity and expression mitigated any purely “realistic” or “naturalistic” character in Ashcan-School painting, especially that of Henri and Sloan.

For Robert Henri the last decade of the 19th century was a period of experimentation. Between 1888 and 1900, Henri virtually commuted between Philadelphia and Paris, where he was exposed to current continental trends. Henri’s first independent style, which dates from the early ’90s, follows the Impressionist tradition that was an outgrowth of naturalist esthetics in the late 19th century. This little-known, but significant, stage of Henri’s career is exemplified by his luminous painting, Girl Seated by the Sea, of 1893, which displays the colorism of his high-keyed palette. A juxtaposition of strokes of pure color evokes sparkling sunlight, and such a concern with optical sensation produced by natural light supplants any anecdotal or decorative elements in the work. Yet the careful definition of the figure, which does not merge with its environment, reveals Henri’s latent sympathy for human form. His Figures on the Boardwalk, from the same period, betrays one significant personal trait, the vigorous handling of the pigment that Henri developed as he matured. Increasingly after 1895, Henri combined his personal preference for free brushwork with pre-Impressionist and post-Impressionist stylistic elements.

The most striking difference between Henri’s Impressionist landscapes and his paintings after 1895 lies in his use of color. By the mid-1890s Henri had discarded the brilliant palette of Figures on the Boardwalk for the more somber tonalism of such works as A Normandy Kitchen.3 In forsaking the light Impressionist palette, Henri also abandoned the search for purely optical sensation which the Impressionists had pursued. Through limitation of the palette to earth tones, among other devices, Henri could suggest atmosphere and mood.

While his dark style may be traced to the immediate influence of Manet, the appearance of decorative compositional devices after 1895 suggests that Henri was equally receptive to certain post-Impressionist styles which were then current in Paris. In paintings such as The Cafe Terrace, 1899, he established a decorative play of light and dark tonal masses. Forms are abbreviated and details suppressed in the interest of an overall compositional pattern in which three-dimensional illusionism has been minimized. Henri’s sense of surface pattern and his flattening of pictorial space, together with his subdued tonalities, are characteristic of the early paintings of such Nabi painters as Edouard Vuillard. During the late 1880s several of the Nabis had attended the Académie Julian at the same time that Henri was enrolled there.

Although there is no evidence of direct contact between Henri and the Nabis, at this time he did meet the underrated Canadian artist, James Wilson Morrice (1865–1924),4 whose personality and whose role in the art world of the late 19th century have remained rather mysterious. In an undated photograph of the Canadian painter we can appreciate John Sloan’s description of Morrice as “a curious old codger, not old, not young, but always bald.”5 Like Henri’s work, Morrice’s paintings of the mid-1890s closely resemble Nabi work. Morrice also learned of the Synthetist contributions of the Pont-Aven group through Roderic O’Connor, an acquaintance of Gauguin. And for a time, Morrice’s association with Walter Sickert and Charles Conder drew the Canadian painter into the Whistler circle. The effect of these contacts with antirealistic art is apparent in Morrice’s decoratively patterned landscapes, where his reduction of form and tonal range, toward subtly controlled design, derives chiefly from Whistler’s art.

Morrice’s Portrait of Henri bears visual witness to the friendship of the two artists. Morrice and Henri both joined William Glackens on sketching expeditions to Fontainebleau, Dieppe and St. Malo,6 which implies an artistic affinity between the Canadian and American artists. From this period we notice a common debt to the Nabi style in the patternlike forms of Henri’s Cafe Terrace and Morrice’s Venice Night (which once belonged to Henri). Although the visual evidence from this period illustrates their remarkably similar development, the direction in which influences flowed between the two artists remains difficult to trace.

While Morrice continued to visit and to correspond with Henri and other members of the Ashcan School, their parallel stylistic evolution did not extend beyond Morrice’s contact with Fauvism, in 1905. We cannot pinpoint the exact nature of artistic influence which resulted from the friendship of the two artists, but the marked similarity of Henri’s paintings and those of Morrice before 1900 attests visually to “antirealistic” sympathies in Henri’s early career. He explained the significance of his ten-odd years in direct contact with the Parisian art world and with men such as Morrice:

There are . . . societies of a very few—little cliques which form by sympathy and which believe in and sustain the independence of their members, and which live by the variety of individualities expressed. Such was that coterie of which Manet, Degas, Whistler, Raphaelli and others of special distinction were the outcome. . . . Many are the little congresses among the students in Paris made up of men from all countries, who draw together through similar sympathy.7

Between 1900 and 1906, Robert Henri produced a series of spontaneous sketches of native American landscapes which fulfills his stylistic evolution begun in Paris. To the tonalism and simplification of form in his earlier French landscapes, Henri added a free, highly vigorous play of brushwork that goes beyond the requirements of visual reportage. A brief account of Henri’s esthetic theories at this time should underscore his antimaterialistic intention in creating such richly textured landscape sketches.8

Although he painted out of doors, Henri advocated reliance on memory and imagination as well as accurate observation. He wrote in 1901, “The great artist has not reproduced nature, but has expressed by his extract the most choice sensation it has produced upon him.”9 This statement closely echoes Mallarmé’s famous dictum: “Paint not the object itself, but the effect it produces.” Henri’s advice that the art student should cultivate his imagination by retaining a childlike sensitivity anticipated the ideas of more recent, progressive writers and artists. According to Henri, however, the artist, unlike the child, exercises expressive selectivity before Nature. Henri replaced an absolute ideal of beauty with the belief that “Beauty is no material thing. Beauty cannot be copied. . . . Nothing is beautiful. But all things await the sensitive and imaginative mind that may be aroused to pleasurable emotion at the sight of them.”10

To some extent, these concepts resemble the Symbolist theory of the Nabis Maurice Denis and Paul Serusier, both of whom favored the creative use of memory and imagination. Both also recognized the decorative potential of painting, but on this point Henri differed from them, disliking any appeal to purely esthetic pleasure. These differences between Henri’s theories and those of the Symbolists emerge in a comparison of Henri’s Rocks, Maine Coast with Sea and Sand by Whistler, who was not officially a Symbolist but who shared their esthetic outlook. Although neither seascape seems to record a visual experience precisely, the work of Whistler appeals to our sense of harmonious pattern while that of Henri appeals more forcefully to emotion. The expressive strength of Henri’s seascape results from his conscious emphasis on vigorous brushwork. As he later wrote: “The brush stroke at the moment of contact carries inevitably the exact state of being of the . . . artist at that moment into the work.”11

From his preoccupation with immediacy for expressive, rather than naturalistic, effect, Henri devised a style and an esthetic that resemble the philosophical concept of vitalism—the turn-of-the-century doctrine “that the life in living organisms is caused and sustained by a vital principle that is distinct from all physical and chemical forces and that life is, in part, self-determining and self-evolving.”12 Henri’s landscape sketches from 1900 to 1906 embody such a highly personal vision of existence.

In 1892, John Sloan met Robert Henri, who urged the younger artist to pursue a career in painting. At this time, Sloan, who was working as an illustrator, developed a decorative, art nouveau manner that influenced his later work. Such magazine illustrations as his Woman and Butterfly cover design for the July 1895 issue of Moods typify the flat, linear arabesque of the so-called “poster style.” Sloan’s proficiency in this American version of art nouveau resulted from his knowledge of Japanese art as well as its European derivatives.13 His library included an 1895 edition of The Poems of Paul Verlaine;14 in fact, the illustrations by Henry McCarter in this Symbolist volume resemble the stylized figure treatment in Sloan’s magazine illustrations.

In his early paintings, Sloan incorporated some of the two-dimensional, linear elements of the poster style. A patterning of large, flat areas of light and dark tones distinguishes his painting of the Rathskeller, Philadelphia, 1901. Thematically and stylistically, this early genre painting recalls Henri’s treatment of similar subject matter in Cafe Terrace; in fact, the linear design appears even more conscious in Sloan’s composition. Yet Sloan, at the same time, injected a note of narrative commentary by contrasting the knowing glance of a gentleman who has ordered champagne with the distracted gaze of a young woman who is apparently dissatisfied with her own beer-drinking companion. Fittingly, the simplified treatment of form and space complement the abstracted state of mind of the heroine of this vignette.

In his urban genre paintings Sloan synthesized the diverse influences of his early career. His Election Night in Herald Square, 1907, exemplifies the kind of subject matter that we identify with the Ashcan School. Yet in his treatment of the everyday scene, Sloan exceeds the limits of realism and naturalism. Sketchy brushwork suggests a scene in momentary appearance, rather than the solidity and mass of people in a “real” environment. As with Henri, however, Sloan’s spontaneity resulted from expressive, rather than naturalistic, aims. Ironically, his resort to memory in this work—a practice that he developed in illustrative journalism—requires more than accurate observation. He later acknowledged the creative role of memory in his early paintings of New York: “In attempting to trace some underlying relationship between my motives, past and present, I conclude that the old pictures of city life were painted from memory, [which] furnished the communicating link. In painting from memory one paints from the thing itself and is not making a visual record.”15 Sloan also injected a note of editorial comment: through an evocative tonalism of lighting and a gestural characterization of people, he conveyed his personal reaction to the excitement and confusion of election night.

Recent research on Sloan’s paintings of New York tends to discover less social commentary than the expression of a vital humanitarianism on the part of the artist himself. As Sloan said: “There must always be an interest in life greater than a concern about making art, but when the creative life of the picture is established, form or style is the way the artist wraps the thing up.”16

Sloan does “wrap the thing up” with consummate skill in the second version of The Wake of the Ferry, dated 1907. In this deceptively simple glimpse of an everyday, urban scene, the composition seems deliberately to convey a personal statement. It is worthwhile, here, to consider the impact of this particular painting on a contemporary critic, who wrote in 1912: “At first glance it is an empty canvas and then slowly it fills with the life of the one figure in the shadow. You cannot escape entering into her thoughts, into the sorrows that have come to her. And the chances are that you recall someday when you too stood desolate, looking out over the receding waters, wondering too, of your future.”17 The empathy which the painting aroused in that writer resulted from Sloan’s calculated placement of an anonymous figure in the foreground, which implicates the viewer in the composition, by a device that goes back to Romanticism (Friedrich). The painting’s gray tonalism intensifies the evocative mood generated by the pose of this foreground figure. And Sloan heightens this aura of melancholic quiet with the dark, linear silhouette of a ferry against the gray background of sea and sky. The resultant interplay of thin and thick lines creates a pleasing surface design that may be an unconscious debt to the poster style. Of course, the master of such a subtle combination of tonalism and linear patterning was Whistler—an artist Sloan admired for such paintings as the Nocturne in Blue and Gold at Battersea. In any case, Sloan’s integration of these devices with the memory of observed reality in The Wake of the Ferry transcends our definitions of realism and naturalism.

While Henri’s and Sloan’s deviations from realist and naturalist esthetics might be exaggerated, to ignore their commitment to artistic selectivity and expression only perpetuates the distorted image of these painters as literal realists, whereas it is possible to say that Henri and Sloan were, in their early careers, “antirealistic.” Their concern with the dynamism of modern existence differs from the realists’ concern with the exclusively objective substance of reality, yet their search for spontaneity did not follow naturalistic formulae. An overriding concern for the personal expression of a vital response to life—either in landscapes or unidealized cityscapes—caused Henri and Sloan to use a variety of stylistic devices outside the realistic and naturalistic conventions of Western art. The “art spirit” that animated Robert Henri and his colleagues seems to have been neither the naturalistic spirit of detached observation nor the antipositivistic spirit of the fin-de-siècle. In conveying their vital, personal response to contemporary life in their early paintings, Henri and John Sloan worked in a style that, if we needed a label, might be called “subjective naturalism.”



1. Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, ed. Margery Ryerson, Philadelphia and London, 1930, pp. 274–75. Although this work is undated, the ideas expressed by Henri conform to his esthetic in the early years of the 20th century.

2. See Joseph Chiari, Realism and Imagination, London, 1960, pp. 16–18; Patrick Romanell, “Prolegomena to any Naturalist Aesthetics,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, XIX (Winter 1960), pp. 140–141.

3. This painting is probably related to the newspaper reproduction of A Normandy Fireplace, 1896, which is published as fig. 36 in William Innes Homer, Robert Henri and His Circle, Ithaca and London, 1969.

4. See Donald W. Buchanan, James Wilson Mortice, Toronto, 1947.

5. The John Sloan Papers, with annotations by Helen Farr Sloan, John Sloan Memorial Library of the Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington. On 23 February 1906, Sloan also remarked on the comical appearance of Morrice; see John Sloan’s New York Scene, ed. Bruce St. John, New York, 1965, p. 16. Morrice, the son of a wealthy Montreal merchant, abandoned law school to pursue an artistic career. In 1890, under the patronage of Canadian art collector Sir William Van Home, he left his homeland for Paris, where he entered the Académie Julian. Morrice came to dislike the rowdy atmosphere of the school, and when a boisterous classmate broke a three-foot loaf of French bread over his already balding skull, the sensitive Canadian left the Academie Julian to study under the Barbizon landscape painter Henri Harpignies. See Kathleen Daly Pepper, James Wilson Morrice, Toronto and Vancouver, 1966, p. 21; William R. Johnston, “James Wilson Morrice, a Canadian Abroad,” Apollo, LXXXVII (1968), p. 452.

6. Pepper, Morrice, pp. 34–49.

7. Robert Henri, “A Practical Talk to Those Who Study Art,” The Philadelphia Press, May 12, 1901; reprinted in The Art Spirit as “An Address to the Students of the School of Design for Women, Philadelphia,” pp. 73–82.

8. It is uncertain whether these landscape sketches were intended as finished paintings or as studies.

9. Henri, “Practical Talk.”

10. Ibid. Henri also remarked that, “Persons and things are whatever we imagine them to be. . . . All our valuation of them is based on the sensations their presence and existence arouse in us.”

11. Henri, The Art Spirit, p. 6. In a letter of 7 April 1902, Henri complained to his family about lack of critical understanding of such devices as accentuation and suppression of detail for expressive effect (Robert Henri Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University).

12. Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, 1960. In an article entitled “The New York Exhibition of Independent Artists.” published in The Craftsman, XVIII (May 1910), Henri explained that the sketch retained vitality “What a mistake we have made in life in seeking for the finished product. A thing that is finished is dead. . . . A thing that has the greatest expression of life itself, however roughly it may be expressed, is in reality a work of art.” (p. 167)

13. Merril Clement Reuppel, “The Graphic Art of Arthur Bowen Davies and John Sloan” (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin, 1955), p. 197. In 1893, Sloan and Henri met the Tokyo newspaper illustrator, Beison Kubota, who covered the Chicago Exposition. Sloan later recalled that, “It was mostly from a study of Japanese prints that I found fresh ideas about design, discovered in observing everyday life”: Helen Farr Sloan, ed., John Sloan, Art Nouveau—The Poster Period of John Sloan: a selection of hitherto unpublished prints and autobiographical recollections by the artist, Lock Haven, Pa., 1967, unpaginated.

14. William Anderson, Japanese Wood Engravings: Their History, Technique and Characteristics, London, 1895; Poems of Paul Verlaine, trans. and illus. Henry McCarter, Chicago, Both volumes are in the John Sloan Memorial Library, Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington.

15. John Sloan, “Introduction” to John Sloan: Painting and Prints; Seventy-fifth Anniversary Retrospective, Hanover, New Hampshire, 1946, unpaginated.

16. Sloan, Poster Period, unpaginated.

17. “American Life by American Painters,” Craftsman, XXIII (December, 1912), p. 371.

This article, which originated in a graduate seminar on American Realism under Professor William I. Homer at the University of Delaware in the fall of 1971, was presented in a greatly condensed form at the Middle Atlantic Symposium in the History of Art at the National Gallery of Art on 15 April 1972.