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.

Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
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The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.