The Ashcan School and the Life Class
In the spring of 1904, George Bellows was living in a fraternity house, playing semi-professional baseball and making the decision to abandon his studies at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. Against the wishes of his Methodist, Republican parents, he moved to Manhattan, enrolled at the New York School of Art and immersed himself in the life of the city. By late summer of 1906, he was ready to set up his own studio in the Lincoln Arcade Building on Broadway and stretch a canvas to paint Nude, Miss Bentham (fig 1). If Miss Bentham looks a little daunted as she gazes back over her shoulder, so too, perhaps, was the artist she saw there. Bellows’s recent experience had been one of jarring transitions and rapid initiation, and much was at stake as he lifted his brush.
Those stakes were set, in part, by the company Bellows kept. As an art student he had quickly gravitated to the instructor Robert Henri, who was in the words of another of his pupils, Edward Hopper, ‘a magnetic teacher’.1 The similarities in pose, setting and approach between Hopper’s Standing Nude, about 1902-04, (fig 2) and Bellows’s Nude, Miss Bentham, suggest the influence Henri exerted on both young painters. ‘My brains were as innocent as a college could make them,’ Bellows said of his first encounter with Henri. ‘My life begins at this point.’2 Henri served as leader and mentor to a group of artists, including John Sloan, Everett Shinn, William Glackens and George Luks, who had come together in Philadelphia in the 1890s and moved to New York at the turn of the century. He urged his old friends and new pupils to paint the life around them, to get out into the streets, to take in the sights and the atmosphere of the chaotic, rapidly expanding metropolis, and to set that experience down in bold strokes on big canvases as quickly as they could. Sloan sought out carnival crowds under the elevated train tracks on Election Night 1907; Bellows painted Forty-Two Kids, 1907 playing on, and diving off, an East River pier.
These paintings brought dynamism, bravura and a fresh perspective to Manhattan’s fast-changing skyline and cosmopolitan sidewalks. They drew attention to the group as they gained artworld prominence around 1908, led to their retrospective identification as ‘New York Realists’ and ‘the Ashcan School’ in the 1930s, and remain their best-known work. But Henri, Sloan and their friends had encountered the influential realist painters Thomas Eakins and Thomas Anshutz at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. From them they took on a commitment to the life class as a fundamental of art education and to studies from nude models as a vital aspect of artistic practice. Paintings of city scenes are undoubtedly the groups’ key contribution to American art, but nude studies like Bellows’s Nude, Miss Bentham and Nude Girl, Miss Leslie Hall, 1909 (fig 3), Sloan’s Prone Nude, Miss Wenzel, 1913, and Henri’s Figure in Motion, 1913, should not be viewed as apprentice-work or side-interests, but as an integral part of their work and their sense of themselves as painters.
Henri’s life class was a rite of passage. One of Bellows’s contemporaries, Clarence Chatterton, remembered stepping gingerly into a ‘large, smoke-filled studio’ where 50 students worked from the model but ‘no one seemed to be in charge’; another, Guy Pene du Bois, wrote of his younger self, confronted with a nude model for the first time: ‘His face was hot, and he knew, with a feeling of desperation, that it was redder than it had ever been before in his life.’3 Bellows met his future wife, Emma Story, at art school, and in a short memoir she described the exciting conversation when the men’s and women’s life classes mixed in the corridor between sessions: ‘To hear Ibsen, Shaw, Tolstoi discussed, was very impressive to me, because JANE EYRE and WUTHERING HEIGHTS were about my highspots in literature.’4 The life class was part of a larger journey for these students, from conservative, religious middle-class homes to the heart of the modern, bohemian New York art scene.
While bound up with these exciting, life-changing experiences, the Ashcan School’s study of the body was, as John Sloan’s 1912 etching Anshutz on Anatomy (fig 4) shows, taken very seriously. Sloan depicts one of a series of lectures delivered by the elderly Anshutz at the New York School of Art in 1906. Addressing a mixed, rapt audience crammed into the life-class studio, he uses modelling clay, a skeleton and a male model to demonstrate the complex workings of human musculature. Sloan shows himself, Henri and Bellows in the top right corner, hanging on the older painter’s words. That quiet focus contrasts with another memory of the same room. Bellows’s 1916 lithograph, The Life Class (fig 5), plunges viewers into the fevered, but no less studious, activity of a life-class session. Bodies and equipment fill the classroom, merging and overlapping with one another; hands and faces protrude from unexpected places; artists work in bold, demonstrative gestures; and intense conversation and spontaneous critique fill the air.
The life-changing encounter with Robert Henri, the camaraderie of art school, the long, chaste courtship of Emma Story, the lessons of Anshutz’s lectures and the life class, and the city streets experienced in pursuit of gritty urban life: all shape Bellows’s Nude, Miss Bentham.