Published: July 31, 2007
The Frist Center for the Visual Arts will open “Life’s Pleasures: The Ashcan Artists’ Brush with Leisure, 1895‱925” Friday, August 3, in the Upper-Level Galleries. Featuring more than 70 paintings by artists including Ashcan school leader Robert Henri, George Bellows, George Luks, Everett Shinn and John Sloan, the exhibition provides a look at the work of a major American artistic movement. The Frist Center is the inaugural venue for “Life’s Pleasures,” which continues through October 28. This exhibition was organized by the Detroit Institute of Arts.
While the Ashcan School is most commonly associated with gritty depictions of working class life in turn-of-the-Twentieth Century New York, “Life’s Pleasures” focuses on a lesser-known aspect of their production: the celebration of leisure activities observed and enjoyed by the artists and their friends. Henri encouraged his followers to “paint what you see. Paint what is real.” Among the topics chosen, therefore, were the multitude of pleasurable pastimes available to citizens of all social levels. Noted for quick brushstrokes, saturated color palettes and thickly layered paint (impasto), these paintings celebrated the joie de vivre that the artists encountered in the world around them.
“From a theatrical production, a day at the beach or a boxing match, Ashcan painters were dedicated to exploring everyday American life at the turn-of-the-century,” says Katie Delmez, curator at the Frist Center. “Artists depicting a beach scene were not attempting to capture the effect of light but rather hoping to depict an array of people escaping the crowded city and simply enjoying a leisurely day off.”
“Life’s Pleasures: The Ashcan Artists’ Brush with Leisure, 1895‱925” is presented in four major sections: The Fine and Performing Arts; Sports and Recreation; Bars and Cafes: At Home and Abroad; and The Outdoors: Park, Beaches and the Country.
With New York City’s thriving cultural life, the artists immersed themselves in the city’s offerings, attending art openings, theatrical plays, musical concerts and dance performances. Popular and less expensive events, such as circuses and carnivals, captured the imagination of the Ashcan School as well with their bright lights and sense of excitement.
Sports were an increasingly popular part of American leisure life. The first modern Olympic Games were held in 1896, and spectator events began to draw larger audiences. Part of the Ashcan group’s ethos was to be active and “manly,” and most of the artists were both sports participants and spectators. They were interested in a broad variety of athletic endeavors and their work reflect that diversity.
Socializing outside the home was becoming an important part of a New York’s social life, and, in keeping with the practice of capturing their own life experiences, the Ashcan School created many images of the cafes and restaurants that they frequented, often including their friends and themselves in the scenes.
After New York City, Paris was the most important and inspiring city for the Ashcan artists. At the turn of the Twentieth Century, Europeans and Americans alike saw the French capital as the center of art and culture.
The final section confirms that in the densely populated New York City, outdoor areas were important focal points for leisure activities. Central Park was a place where Ashcan artists went to both observe and participate in activities such as picnicking, ice-skating, lawn games and simply relaxing. Members of the lower classes, primarily located in the southern part of Manhattan, often found relief from crowded conditions along the river piers, where they fished and swam, and the Ashcan artists recorded these activities as well.
The Frist Center for the Visual Arts is at 919 Broadway. For information, 615-244-3340 or www.fristcenter.org .
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