- ”A Spectator of Life—A Reverential, Enthusiastic, Emotional Spectator”
Visiting Metropolitan Lives at the New-York Historical Society in mid-1996 (its second and last installation after its opening at the National Museum of American Art), something more than the occasional scampering tot and chiding guard disrupts the normatively austere and hushed setting. The spirit of another exhibit, separated by a mere year and a half, haunts the rooms displaying the work of Robert Henri, George Bellows, William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan, who [End Page 356] together composed the loosely-defined and retrospectively-titled Ashcan School. Although not immediately apparent, the modestly mounted Metropolitan Lives contends with a more lavish predecessor’s verdict on these six artists who moved to New York at the turn of the century. The “debate” is hardly explicit, but is rather carried out in the indirect diplomacy of curatorial politesse. Nevertheless, visitors with some memory, or in possession of the exhibitions’ respective catalogs, have the rare opportunity of encountering and evaluating strikingly different interpretations about art and its relationship to a particular time and place that, at the same time, also pose alternative methods of presenting information and analysis.
Opening in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in May 1994 and subsequently traveling to four other museums during the course of the next year, American Impressionism and Realism: The Painting of Modern Life, 1885–1915, posed an overtly revisionist thesis. The two movements have usually been set in formal and thematic opposition to one another, but they actually shared similar attitudes and subject interests. While Impressionists such as William Merritt Chase and Childe Hassam “preferred to capture the tranquil beauty of the rural landscape and the enclosed safety of the domestic sphere,” and the Realists, exemplified in the work of the Ashcan painters, “explored a greater range of urban themes . . . bring[ing] the viewer into the midst of the city and its activity,” both groups responded to the life around them and expressed “the temper of the times.” Divided into three thematic categories—”The Country,” “The City,” and “The Home”—the exhibit compared the two schools’ formal attributes and treatment of social themes. And, as observers of the contemporary scene, both groups of American artists were found wanting:
The American Impressionists and Realists were attracted to the new order of things but retreated from recording it directly, often framing their compositions to edit out some of the less appealing aspects of modern life. They preferred to seek reminiscences of an older, more rural nation even within flourishing American cities. Amid the clatter and crowds they painted remnants of the poetic and the picturesque, approaching urban subjects with a noticeable measure of genteel euphemism. 1
For the American Realists, celebrated for their fascination with the life of the streets, this blinkered view was particularly paradoxical. Their palettes might have been more subdued than the American Impressionists, their minds might have been imbued by the Progressive Era’s “liberal social doctrine,” and their sympathies might have been aroused by the struggles of their working-class subjects, but their artistic vision “was not as tough, [End Page 357] bitter, or pessimistic” as that of their French contemporaries who, according to the curators, served as their inspiration. Positioning themselves as rebels against the art establishment of the day, the Ashcan painters nonetheless hewed more closely to the status quo within the confines of their canvases, “rarely creating images that were too harsh or disturbing.” Shaped by the very American “tendency toward euphemism, optimism, nationalism, and nostalgia,” their...