There was a time when Election Day—raucous, electrifying, a cause for hopeful celebration—turned metropolitan cities like New York upside-down. These days, most of us vote in elementary schools badly in need of fresh paint and attended by sleep-deprived poll workers. In contrast, Election Night (1907), by Ashcan School painter John Sloan (1871–1951), shows us just how exciting casting a vote and waiting for results could be at the turn of the century.
From Sloan’s diary, November 5: “. . . took a walk in the afternoon and saw boys in droves, foraging for fuel for their election fires this evening. . . . after dinner . . . out again and saw the noisy trumpet blowers, confetti throwers and the “ticklers” in use—a small feather duster on a stick which is pushed in the face of each girl by the men, and in the face of men by the girls.”
That certainly doesn’t describe a day of civic duty in modern times. Sloan’s painting, however, hums with modernity. The elevated trains in the background had been open to the public for less than 40 years. The first automobile was only a few months away. The crowd is flanked by electric streetlights (some of the city’s first) lining the streets. Sloan captures the scene, its movement, the cacophony. (And what’s with those ticklers? Surely one would get arrested today for trying to liven up the local poll site with “a tickler”.)
Four figures dominate the canvas. At the center, a woman in red, tickler in hand, leans over with as if to shout something to a friend in the crowd. But with closer inspection you notice her hand, shooing away the grinning man behind her who is showering her with a handful of confetti. In his other hand he holds one of the “noisy trumpets” Sloan wrote about. In fact, the trumpets, like the confetti, are everywhere.
To the right of the woman in red, a mysterious man wearing a derby hat faces away from the viewer. Which is odd for someone so prominently featured in the picture. Though his back is turned, it’s clear that he holds a tickler in his right hand. One could be forgiven, though, for thinking it was a paint brush. Following the line from his outstretched arm down the thin stick, you wind up looking at a blonde in the thick of the crowd, almost as if the man in hat had placed her there.
Sloan’s quick brush strokes may distort some of the faces, but the way he manipulates paint on the canvas emphasizes the dynamic movement of the crowd and pulls the viewer into the boisterous, chaotic atmosphere. “A good humored crowd,” Sloan wrote in his diary, “so dense in places that it was impossible to control one’s movement. A big election bonfire on Seventh Ave. with a policeman trying to keep its creators from adding fuel.”
The Ashcan School and Robert Henri
The Ashcan School, like jazz, was singularly American phenomenon, its painters drawing largely on the the urban experience. Like the Impressionists who influenced them, they were not a unified group, but rather collection of like-minded artists.
Robert Henri (1865–1929), considered to be the Ashcan’s paterfamilias and a mentor to many of its artists, once said he “wanted art to be akin to journalism. . . . paint to be as real as mud, as the clods of horse-shit and snow that froze on Broadway in the winter.”
In contrast to the polite and monied subjects painted by the Impressionists, the Ashcan School artists drew inspiration from city life of the early 1900s, a time that saw a sharp increase in poverty and the expansion of slums alongside technological advances. (Modern urban life also inspired the realist literature of Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and Henri’s favorite author, Walt Whitman.)
Henri’s 1902 canvas Snow in New York offers an almost journalistic description of a snowy side street in Midtown New York City on a frigid winter day. The mood is somber. Very little light comes from the sky and much of the snow has turned muddy. Pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages struggle through the slush and ice. As in Sloane’s Election Night, the brush strokes are quick and heavy, which makes the cold and wet almost palpable.
One of the most prominent painters of the Ashcan School was the painter George Bellows (1882–1925). His canvas Both Members of This Club (1909) is one of a series of paintings Bellows made of boxing matches, which were banned in New York State that year. To skirt this law, private athletic clubs would host the bouts, making sure to announce that both fighters were members.
The painting is thought to have been inspired by Jack Johnson, a Black prize-fighter who won the heavyweight championship a year before Bellows executed the painting. At the time, the height of the Jim Crow era, interracial boxing matches considered by many to be at best in poor taste and at worst something that should be illegal. The picture may indicate what Bellows thought about such close-mindedness, considering who is winning the bout.
Not every Ashcan School painting was as explosive as Election Night or Both Members of This Club. In Street Scene (Hester Street) (1905), George Luks (1867–1933) turns his attention to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, then home to countless newly arrived immigrants who lived cheek to jowl in the neighborhood’s crowded tenement buildings.
Here, the point of view is that of someone on the street, hemmed in by a sea of bustling adults and children. Luks pays special attention to the skin tone of every person, showing that this neighborhood was home to a wealth of ethnicities and nationalities.
Despite their focus on the gritty realities of urban life, Ashcan School artists occasionally painted the idyllic scenes that can be found amid the bustle and squalor of a big city. It’s in canvases like Italo-American Celebration, Washington Square (1912) by William Glackens (1870–1938) that they came closest to their Impressionist roots.
The crowds are still there, but things seem peaceful during this Columbus Day parade in New York City. Between two trees in the center right of the painting, both the American and Italian flags are held up with pride. On the other side of Washington Square Arch more flags can be seen, hinting at the city’s diversity.
At the time, neighborhoods around Washington Square Park, like the Lower East Side, were home to a vast immigrant community. But in contrast to Luks’s depiction of Hester Street, Glackens shows us a version of the American dream, a city where only a few steps separate the newcomers in ragged clothes watching the parade and the well-dressed citizens leading it.