Gilded City

There’s a corner of the American Wing at the museum where I work that has always been my favorite. It’s the one that highlights John Sloan, William Glackens, George Bellows, George Luks, and the rest of the artists known as The Ashcan School. The corner in question features scenes of city life — crowded thoroughfares and fish markets, tenements and the original excavation of Penn Station. It’s a tribute to interpretations of city life in all its gritty glory.

I’ve always loved this particular period of art history, and of American history in general. The Gilded Age, straddling the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was an era of rapid economic growth, robber barons and political machines. My fascination with this particular period began my senior year in college, when I took not one, not two, but three seminars dedicated to discussing it. The Gilded Age was a time not just of immense economic change but also of artistic innovation. Over in Europe, you had the Post-Impressionists and Fauvists, the Expressionists, the Cubists, and other Avant Garde movements. Here in America, we followed Europe’s example with our own spin on Impressionism — folks like John Singer Sargent, William Merritt Chase, and Thomas Wilmer Dewing who churned out dreamy portraits of the upper crust in their Newport mansions, sailboats on the Cape, etc. These works were hugely popular in their day, and continue to be an important part of how we define this period of American art history. But even more interesting for me are the artists who devoted themselves and their art to the flip side, the underbelly, the huddled masses in all their poor, tired, hungry reality.

George Bellows, Pennsylvania Station Excavation, 1909 (Brooklyn Museum)
George Bellows, Pennsylvania Station Excavation, 1909 (Brooklyn Museum)

This is what I love most about the Ashcan School. Sloan, Glackens, Bellows, Luks, and artists like them took the ugly corners of this country (and especially of New York) and painted them for the world to see. These were the things that made the age gilded and not golden. Those giant Newport mansions were just a veneer for the underlying social, economic, and political issues plaguing the country. As industrialism expanded and rich men became richer, the lack of labor laws created horrible workplace conditions. The gap between the rich and the poor widened, population booms forced more and more people into the same space, and living conditions worsened as a result. Sargent and his colleagues painted the gold. The Ashcan School painted the cracks.

So what brought me to this particular place in the museum on this particular day? Well it’s finally decided to be summer here in the city, so I left my sweltering apartment earlier than usual and arrived an hour before my shift, trying to take advantage of how cold they keep this place as soon as it hits 70 outside (a stark contrast to my own AC-free abode). I’ve worked at the museum for a year and a half now, and I’ve seen its offerings a hundred times over, but whenever I have a moment to wander I always find myself back in the American Wing. Sometimes, I skip right past the images of Brooklyn in the first room, other times I linger at the jazz-infused Stuart Davis or the the skeleton painting by Georgia O’Keeffe, but most of the time I head directly to the four paintings by the Ashcan artists. I think my love for the American collection stems from the same place as my love for doing Zelda and Scout. It’s about the many, hugely varied narratives that make up America, and the crazy patchwork of humans that call it home. Hearing and seeing these stories teaches me so much about the country where I’ve spent my entire life, yet which still holds a million corners and characters I have yet to get to know.

John French Sloan, McSorely's Bar, 1912 (Detroit Institute of Arts)
John French Sloan, McSorely’s Bar, 1912 (Detroit Institute of Arts)

Art has always been a huge part of how I process emotions (and the occasional existential crisis). Rothko and Whistler soothe me when I’m stressed; J.M.W. Turner reminds me why I fell in love with studying art in the first place. And when I’m in crisis over New York (which is often, because it so frequently makes me crazy), I turn to the Ashcan artists — to Bellows’s tenements and workersSloan’s pubs and city corners, and Luks’s crowded streets.

I’m approaching my three-year mark in this city, and with it comes a lot of self-reflection. I always told myself this would be a long-term but temporary home, a place to be while I was young but not a place to grow old. So as another year passes, I find myself thinking about what I came here for and if I really want to stay. From the moment I moved here, something about Year Three served as a benchmark in the back of my mind, a significant enough chunk to be able to look around, reevaluate, and see how I felt about sticking around for another three. Three years in, I thought, I would have spent significant time at a “grown-up” job, share an apartment with one roommate (currently, I have four), and feel established in the city. Three, I thought, would be a crossroads, and a good time to figure out my next step.

George Benjamin Luks, Street Scene (Hester Street), 1905 (Brooklyn Museum)
George Benjamin Luks, Street Scene (Hester Street), 1905 (Brooklyn Museum)

But as usually happens in life, nothing has turned out quite like I expected, and a year that I thought would bring answers has only brought more questions. And so I find myself staring introspectively at a painting by George Luks in an oft-overlooked corner of the American Wing on a weekday afternoon. Most of the Ashcan School paintings, especially the ones on display here, highlight the city I now call home (at least for the moment), along with a handful of the other nameless people that made their lives here before I did. There’s something comforting about Luks’s vision of a crowded Hester Street in 1905. People have been coming to this city for ages. They’ve been searching for their lives and their purpose in New York for 391 years. And I’m one of them. I too have been on Hester Street on a busy morning, in my own way. I’ve felt what those people felt.

So maybe looking at these paintings doesn’t necessarily make me feel good about living in New York. But it does make me feel okay about seeing the cracks in a city that so many other people see as golden. If there’s one thing the Ashcan School can teach us, I think it’s that seeing those cracks and making something out of them is worth the work.



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