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The Ashcan Painters: beauty and brutality in American art

"Pictures from life" at the National Gallery.

George Bellows (1882-1925) was one of the most influential American painters of the early 20th century and yet his work is not widely known in the UK. The National Gallery's new exhibition An American Experiment: George Bellows and the Ashcan Painters introduces this important artist and his peers, ahead of a major exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in 2013.

Named the Ashcan group in reference to their realist approach, Bellows and his contemporaries were concerned with new ways of presenting American life, valuing honesty and immediacy. Much of their work depicts New York, which by the 1880s was developing rapidly into an urban centre of teeming humanity and burgeoning industry.

As the wild landscapes of the New World metamorphosed into scenes of modernity, these artists explored the shifting nature of American identity. Each of the twelve paintings in the exhibition displays this arresting "Ashcan" quality. In Bellows' North River (1908), urban endeavour is intercepted by the vast, looming landscape of the Hudson river and Palisade cliffs beyond it. The untrammelled energy of the city is captured in Excavation at Night (1908). In the foreground, floodlights illuminate a pit where labourers toil over what would become Pennsylvania Station, itself a monument of "Gilded Age" New York. The Manhattan city street above glowers in murky shades of blue and amber, the paint laid on "with the density of mud".

The Ashcanners did not flinch from poverty and malaise. John Sloan's Sixth Avenue and Thirtieth Street, New York City (1907) makes use of a stark visual language, perhaps a legacy of his early training as a newspaper illustrator. A woman, scantily-clad, staggers across a street, clutching what appears to be a can of beer. Her hair is an unkempt mop, her features indelicate and ruddy. To her side, a couple of promenading prostitutes glance back at her in apparent amusement, themselves subject to the gaze of top-hatted city gents. Above all this, the steel girders of the railway line cut through the scene while the pavement is lined with billboards.

The importance of creating a new kind of American art by engaging with contemporary life and common people was articulated by Bellows, who praised Sloan's work as "big and rough and simple. Rough in colour and without polish. These pictures have a distinction as human documents, which I believe to be the rarest quality." The abject situation of Sixth Avenue and Thirtieth Street is testament to Sloan's combination of compassion and vivid characterisation. (Looking at this painting, I couldn't help but be riled by the unduly loud comments of one middle-aged woman standing behind me, who remarked to her friend that "this is what my mother-in-law would call 'ho-hum'". The other woman concurred, knowingly, with a grunt).

In his own depiction of the human form, Bellows eschewed traditional ideals of beauty. Nude Girl, Miss Leslie Hall (1909) presents the viewer with the pale, rumpled flesh of a large woman- the expansive, mottled thigh and rolls of the stomach are rendered through thick, bold brushwork. The woman, holding her ankle, seems simultaneously enigmatic and blank. But another female figure in the exhibition creates a striking contrast to the nude. Robert Henri's The Art Student (1906) is a portrait of 22-year-old Josephine Nivison, a student of Henri's at the New York School of Art who later married Edward Hopper. Here she is depicted as a determined and vigorous young woman. Wearing a floor length smock and gripping her paintbrushes, she gazes back unflinchingly at the viewer.

This small collection exhibits the Ashcan group's bold engagement with the beauty and ugliness, the enterprise and entropy of the developing modern metropolis, bringing to mind John Dos Passos' prose image of the city in his 1925 novel Manhattan Transfer: "Outside the lemoncoloured dawn was drenching the empty streets, dripping from cornices, from the rails of fire escapes, from the rims of ashcans, shattering the blocks of shadow between buildings."

An American Experiment is open until 30th May. Admission is free.