The Ashcan School, also called the Ash Can School, is defined as a realist artistic movement that came into prominence in the United States during the early twentieth century, best known for works portraying scenes of daily life in New York's poorer neighborhoods. The movement grew out of a group known as The Eight, whose only show together in 1908 created a sensation. Its members included five painters later associated with the Ashcan School: William Glackens (1870-1938), Robert Henri (1865-1929), George Luks (1867-1933), Everett Shinn (1876-1953) and John French Sloan (1871-1951). They had met studying together under Thomas Pollock Anshutz at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Other members of The Eight were Arthur B. Davies (1862-1928), Ernest Lawson (1873-1939) and Maurice Prendergast (1859-1924), whose work diverged from the Ashcan School in style.
"The Eight" was a group of artists, many of whom had experience as newspaper illustrators in Philadelphia, who exhibited as a group at the Macbeth Gallery in New York in 1908. The show, which created a sensation, subsequently toured the US under the auspices of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The Eight are remembered as a group because of the impact of their only show, despite the fact that their work was diverse in terms of style and subject matter: only five of the artists (Henri, Sloan, Glackens, Shinn, and Luks) painted the gritty urban scenes that characterized the Ashcan School.
As noted, the Ashcan School was not an organized group. Their unity consisted of a desire to tell some truths about the city. Robert Henri "wanted art to be akin to journalism. He wanted paint to be as real as mud, as the clods of horse-shit and snow, that froze on Broadway in the winter." The first known use of the "ash can" terminology in describing the movement was by Art Young, in 1916. The term was later applied to a group of artists who portrayed urban subject matter, primarily of New York's working class neighborhoods. These included Henri, Glackens, Edward Hopper (a student of Henri), Shinn, Sloan, Luks, George Bellows (another student of Henri), Mabel Dwight, and others such as photographer Jacob Riis. (Despite his inclusion in the group by some critics, Hopper rejected their focus; his depictions of city streets were nearly free of the usual details, "with not a single incidental ashcan in sight.")
The artists of the Ashcan School rebelled against American Impressionism, which was the vanguard of American art at the time. In contrast to its emphasis of light, their works were generally dark in tone, capturing harsher moments of life and often portraying such subjects as prostitutes, drunks, butchered pigs, overflowing tenements with laundry hanging on lines, boxing matches, and wrestlers. It was their frequent, although not total, focus upon poverty and the daily realities of urban life that prompted American critics to consider them on the fringe of modern art.