San Francisco

“The Immortal Eight”

Crocker Art Gallery

43 paintings by members of the Ashcan School. This major exhibition of works by the still controversial Eight, assembled and circulated by the Museum of Modern Art, is beginning its tour at a historic old museum which was once the mansion of E. B. Crocker and as such the center of Northern California's social and cultural life. It seems a fitting place for the take-off. The Eight are wholly in character with the Sacramento of their time—they possess the same lusty virility, combining clumsy gaucherie with bravura and, at times, a touch of greatness which probably would have met a more sympathetic audience in the West than in sophisticated New York and Philadelphia.

All of the members are represented here, some better than others: Robert Henri (1865–1929), John Sloan (1871–1951), William Glackens (1870–1938), Everett Shinn (1876–1953), George Luks (1867-1933), Arthur B. Davies (1862–1928), Maurice B. Prendergast (1859–1924), and Ernest Lawson (1873–1939) who, early in 1908 held their own show at the MacBeth Gallery in New York City to protest the exhibition policies of the National Academy and in so doing opened the floodgates to the Independent Movement in 20th-century American painting. That was their only exhibition as a group, and seeing them hung together is still a rare experience.

First termed “Social Realists,” after the MacBeth episode they were derisively hailed as “The Ashcan School.” In time the latter appellation became respectable, even for a while revered, then later fell again into disrepute. While recognizing their preoccupation with “the common life” the Crocker show reveals the limitations of both descriptions and one regrets the tendency of writers to too quickly catalog artists with throttling phrases.

Group leader of The Eight was Robert Henry Cozad, born in Cincinnati and universally known as Robert Henri. Henri studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, coming into contact with Eakins' realism by way of Thomas Anshutz. Later, in Paris, he came under the influence of the Impressionists and Manet became his lodestar. Henri's portraits are sentimental to the point of saccharinity. But not his landscapes-the two at the Crocker are really impressive.

Henri has been respected for his teaching and art philosophy more than his painting, and the exhibition does nothing to alter this precept. Dissatisfied with the instruction at the Pennsylvania Academy, Sloan, Glackens, Luks and Shinn, then young artist-reporters, were drawn to Henri's studio for informal meetings that turned into regular weekly talks where Henri expounded his theory of a direct approach to life and urged self-expression in art as opposed to academic imitation. Prendergast, Davies and Lawson soon joined the group, although they affiliated with Henri more through temperament than style. Together the group achieved for American artists what Dreiser, Lewis, Anderson and their followers achieved for the literary world. They focused attention on the vigorous and all-inclusive picture of the country and its people rather than on the niceties of the genteel tradition.

Opinions vary as to which of The Eight was the most original and powerful painter, or whether there was any originality at all within the group. Prendergast and Sloan seem to be the ones most often mentioned and the Crocker show favors them. Of the two, Sloan would appear to have the more painterly approach and the more significant statement. Sloan was a native of Philadelphia, a newspaperman and a rebel against the Academy. He moved to New York in 1904 where, as Henri had advised, he immersed himself in the vigorous life of the city. It provided him with his principal motif—the activities of the ordinary people. That he responded to them with zest and sympathy is obvious. Also obvious is his unconcern for the structure of the figure (whether because he couldn't or wouldn't draw is a moot question). Yet he did express an awkward grace of movement and vitality of expression that is consistent with his subjects.

Glackens, too, was a clumsy draftsman. In slavish adoration of Renoir's glowing palette he oversimplified shapes in favor of color, which proved his undoing as a figure painter. His street scenes, with their special atmosphere, are among the best works in the show, but probably his greatest contribution to American art was gaining recognition for the French Impressionists.

Luks seems to have been the least influenced by the French. And yet he was the most frankly derivative painter of them all. Clinging tenaciously to the apron strings of Frans Hals, he occasionally strayed to come up with some startling results. His old lady with a parrot, at the Crocker, is merely a watered down version of Hals' hearty old gal with a beer mug. But his Portrait of a Girl #2, while rendered in the silvery browns of the Munich School, has the expressionistic quality of Chaim Soutine's later portraits. And among the watercolors, his are by far the most expressive.

Pendergast was apparently the only one of The Eight to use transparent watercolor—the others favored the heavier English “body color.” He also had little interest in the aschan aspect of the city, painting rather the gala pageantry of city parks, people on holiday, regattas and the like in tapestry- like watercolors that are crisp as a crushed cracker. Mostly Prendergast's subjects were groups of people composed in dominantly vertical and horizontal relationships (recalling Seurat's compositions). An awkward simplification of form contributes a gaucherie that while robbing his works of the sophistication he obviously hoped for did give them a certain vitality. Of all of The Eight, he least deserves the title “Ashcan” artist or “Social Realist.”

Davies was one of the leaders in the fight against academic timidity and it was through his efforts that The Eight held their initial showing. Yet, like Prendergast, he was stylistically foreign to them. His was a dream world, full of sensuous charm. With rhythmic line and muted color he painted poetic reveries composed of handsome nude figures in quiet landscape settings. If the current move to revive Maxfield Parrish is successful, we can expect to see a resurgence of interest in Davies, although idyllic figure groupings is about the only thing they have in common.

Ernest Lawson was primarily a landscape painter, and a first class technician with an abiding love of pigment for itself alone.

Everett Shinn, the youngest of The Eight, qualified more than any other, with the possible exception of Sloan, as a Social Realist. He illustrated the local world of fashion, cafe society, the bons vivants. He is particularly known for his paintings of theater genre but, aside from the magnificent landscape The Berkshires which shows him at his peak, he is poorly represented at the Crocker Gallery.

Elizabeth M. Polley