Monday, May 4, 2009

Art in the Lower East Side: Ashcan Paintings

What was life really like on the Lower East Side over 100 years ago? The artifacts in our collection are great tools for piecing things together, but few things give a better overview than turn-of-the-century paintings, photographs, and films, which we'll explore in this week's series.

The Ashcan school of painting was controversial back in 1908 for the same reason it's so valuable to historians today: it exposed the seedy side of life on the Lower East Side, shocking wealthy New Yorkers who preffered to keep the city's squalor out of sight and out of mind. The turn of the century saw an explosion in progressive muckraking, with journalists like Jacob Riis using newspaper articles and photographs to win reforms for the working-class. What was most revolutionary about the eight founders of the Ashcan school (named for the gritty subjects of their paintings) was the tools they used to conduct their journalistic endeavors: paintbrushes and canvases rather than paper, pen, and camera. Following the motto "art for life's sake," the artists peeked into the saloons, rear yards, and alleyways east of the Bowery, producing works like the following:

Cliff Dwellers, by George Bellows

Six O'Clock, Winter by John Sloan

Dempsey and Firpo, by George Bellows

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