Social realism was a movement that focused on the presentation of untraditional subject matter through traditional painting techniques. Robert Henri was the leader and teacher of a group of artists working in this mode. The group was called “The Eight” and included Henri, William Glackens and six others. This group of American Realists was often referred to as the Ash-can School, a derogatory term relating to what critics called the “ugly” subjects they often depicted. Henri’s ideal of depicting contemporary American life through expressive realism, which he termed “art for life’s sake,” made him one of the great influences on twentieth-century American art.
Henri became best known for his forceful portraits of everyday people and he strove to capture the character of each sitter. This portrait by Henri depicts Brian O’Malley, the guide who escorted Henri and his wife to the cliffs of Croaghan in Ireland.
A native of Philadelphia, William Glackens began his artistic career as a newspaper illustrator. In 1891, he enrolled in evening classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and met Robert Henri, who encouraged Glackens to paint. After the National Academy of Design rejected Glackens’ work in 1907, he joined Henri and six others to establish a group of artists known as “The Eight.”
This painting by Glackens depicts a lake in the White Mountains near Conway, New Hampshire, where the Glackens family spent several summers. It is an example of Glackens’ shift from painting scenes of urban grit to creating images of middle-class leisure activity.
Born and raised in Ohio, George Bellows chose to pursue a career in art over an offer to play professional baseball for the Cincinnati Reds. Bellows moved to New York and studied with Robert Henri who became both a mentor and admirer of the young artist.
While Bellows is sometimes associated with the Ash-can School and the gritty realism of Robert Henri, his later works reflected an impressionistic influence. During the last five years of his life, the artist turned to portraiture. Bellows’ success in this genre is reflected in this painting of his wife, Emma.
These three works show the unique relationship between Henri as a teacher and two of his students, Glackens and Bellows.