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The Ashcan School is a term used to denominate a group of American artists from the beginning of the XX century. Although it was not a school, nor an organized movement with a manifesto, the artists maintained a unity by working with the theme of urban realism, especially the vitality of New York City. Some artists were more political than others, and some not at all, but overall the artists of the Ashcan School were not worried about causing social criticism or political revolution. The works being produced would mainly show the poverty and problems brought by the immigration in the United States, even though the artists belonged to a comfortable middle-class and did not deal directly with this in their lives. These problems were sometimes sugar-coated in a more peaceful and idealized manner.
Robert Henri was the leading name of the Ashcan School, an artistic and spiritual mentor for many artists to come. He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy where the Realists Thomas Anshutz and Thomas Eakins were professors, and ultimately Eakins becomes an enthusiast for Henri’s work. After studying at the Academy, the painter works in Paris at the Julian Academy. He returns to America and lectures in Philadelphia’s School of Design for Women.
The artists that are mentored by Henri are inspired by his teachings, as he says “art for life’s sake,” as well as his tendencies to work with urban realism, portraying what he sees as the truth about modern city life. The first generation of the Ashcan School was formed by Henri and his four followers: George Luks, William Glackens, John Sloan, and Everett Shinn. Luks uses loose brush strokes and a natural color palette in Spring Morning, Houston and Division Street, where he portrays women at a street market in a lower class neighborhood. Glackens, on the other hand, is more cautious with his details and has more contained brush strokes, as seen in his cold scene of Central Park in Winter.
Sloan has many notable paintings, as he worked beautifully with color contrast and his figures have a caricature feel. In the New York landscape Cornelia Street, the artist plays with the contrast of the brown and black color pallet of the city and the colorful sky, filled with tons of yellow, green and blue. He also gave visibility to women of the lower class, like in the casual scene Sunday, Women Drying Their Hair, or in the more serious A Woman’s Work. Henri and his group all relocate to New York, where the movement blossoms.
The artists of this period would work with painting, illustration – most had experience working illustrating for many newspapers of the time – as well as printing techniques, like metal etching and stone lithography. Deeply inspired by the great masters of the past like Frans Hals, Francisco de Goya, and Diego Velazquez, mainly because of their gestural brushwork and the dark color pallet they used.
The second generation of the Ashcan School is considered to begin after their move to New York, and Henri’s student George Bellows joins the group – soon becoming one of the leading participants. Bellows continued the ideals of the Ashcan School as he portrayed the narrative of every-day life but his subjects would often vary from cityscapes, portraits, war scenes, and boxing matches, like in Dempsey and Firpo Aka Brodies Revenge. He studied and experienced painting with different theories of color and composition. The Ashcan School is, first of all, a modernist movement – meaning the artists believed in expressing freely any theme and in any way they feel. Even though this movement still mainly uses the traditional paint on canvas, they strived to rupture with rules dictated from the Academy.
Other artists were also later on associated with the Ashcan School, like Glenn O. Coleman and the famous Edward Hopper. Coleman paints the New York life more graphically, portraying the cold city in dark colors, as seen in Brooklyn Skyline and The Dock. Hopper is known for depicting the loneliness of the modernism. Even in paintings where there is more than one person, they all seem to be lonely and gloomy figures, like in one of the most famous paintings of modern time Night Hawks.
The Ashcan School did not maintain unity in technique or media used; sometimes artists would sugarcoat delicate political and social subjects and other times they were brutally honest with humanity’s ability to deal with their contemporary life. The artists involved were able to translate the overall feel of the Modern world in the United States and how this affected the many levels of society.