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Allen Street by George Luks. Image provided by MoAFL.

They loved ugliness and made it beautiful. The group of American painters who comprised the so-called Ashcan school of art created a new kind of artistic representation in the early 1900s. A representative example of their works is currently on exhibit at the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art.

Henri, Sloan, Shinn, Luks and Glackens: these five artists were known as devotees of the ugly. Even now, a century later, they are not household names, but to anyone interested in the development of 20th century art they are an integral element. You don’t have to love them, but you can’t ignore them!

A perfect example of turning a snapshot of city life into a fine painting is Allen Street by George Luks (1905). It shows the reality of ordinary, down-to-earth American life by capturing the flavor of a street scene. Many of the very earliest paintings, such as this one, incorporate the essential characteristics of the Ashcan school: a somber palette, loose brushwork and the portrayal of a seedy environment.

Spring Planting Sloan. Image provided by MoAFL.Spring Planting Sloan. Image provided by MoAFL.A decade later, most of the artists involved had moved away from this to create a much brighter palette. Foremost among these on display is Spring Planting by John Sloan (1913). With its lightness of color, the picture exudes a simple joy.

Viewers of the exhibit can also see the different techniques employed. Winter in Zion by George Bellows (1909) dragged his brush over wet pigment, causing exposure in places of the black under-painting. The result is unique and effective, giving the canvas a depth it would otherwise lack. Bellows was a student of Robert Henri, regarded by some as the leading light of the Ashcan school. One measure of Bellows' popularity is the fact that Bill Gates bought one of his 1910 paintings for $27.5 million in 1999.

The gem of the exhibit is The Rag Picker by Luke (1905). It is reminiscent of a Rembrandt, although it has also been compared to a Velasquez or a Rivera. Most of the paintings in the exhibit are owned by art museums, but this one comes from the private collection of Jane and Gabe Auerbach in Boca Raton.

Details of the paintings depicted here:

Allen Street,

Collection of the Hunter Museum of American Art, Chattanooga, Tennessee, Gift of Miss.

   Inez Hyder, HMAA.1956.1

Spring Planting,

Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio: Howald Fund Purchase II


The Ashcan exihibit runs through Feb. 24, 2013 at the Museum of Art Ft. Lauderdale (MoAFL)


Clifford Cunningham

Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist currently affiliated with the National Astronomical Research Institute. He did his PhD work in the history of astronomy at James Cook University, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. He is the author of 12 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honour by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in 1990.

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