Painters of American Life: The Eight
On display through March 22
Gibbes Museum of Art
135 Meeting St.
America has always loved its rebels, underdogs, and outlaws. But every so often, even this country gets stuck in its ways.
Take the art scene of the early 1900s. American Impressionism was all the rage, taking its cue from French artists like Monet and Manet. These painters had waged their own rebellion in the 1860s, risking ridicule by showing in Paris' Salon des Refusés. Fifty years later, however, America's accepted style of loose brushstrokes and bright colors was getting old fast; as early as 1895, painter Robert Henri regarded it as a "new academicism."
It took a fresh generation of oil-daubed roustabouts to break the mold anew in 1908. They didn't ride motorbikes but they were still wild ones, revolting against the status quo. There were eight in the group, imaginatively nicknamed "The Eight" — Robert Henri, Arthur B. Davies, William Glackens, Ernest Lawson, George Luks, Maurice Prendergast, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan. All are represented in the Gibbes' new show, Painters of American Life.
Painters pays deserved homage to The Eight's work. Just as the Salon des Refusés had tilted at the Académie des Beaux-Arts, the Eight held their own maverick show at Macbeth Galleries in New York, challenging the mores of the National Academy of Design.
And the way they did it — drumming up media attention, skipping the purview of an academic jury — was almost as important as the art they created. The sensational Macbeth show represents a modern way of promoting and showing independent art that has resonated ever since. For once, the artists controlled their product instead of a gallery or institution, enabling a closer-than-ever link between creator and collector.
Although each member of the Eight sought new, progressive ways to depict their subjects, their approaches were varied. The show included portraits, landscapes, and New York street scenes. Rather than hearkening to an idyllic impression of pre-Industrial Age life, the show featured gritty vignettes from the real world ripped from the headlines of the day. This school of painting, later dubbed "ashcan" art, was propelled into the public consciousness by Henri.
The son of a riverboat gambler, Henri was a charismatic teacher and leader of the Charcoal Club, which included Glackens, Luks, Shinn, and Sloan. In 1906, Henri sat on the jury of the National Academy of Design, but he quit soon after, complaining about the partiality of his fellow jurors; it was no coincidence that some of his club members were passed over for selection.
Without the Academy's backing, Henri had to organize his own show, bringing the Eight together. The group included Glackens, Luks, Shinn, and Sloan, which further rocked the Academic apple cart. These whippersnappers weren't even full-time painters. They were all newspaper illustrators for The Philadelphia Press. Their keen eye for realistic detail complemented Henri's own sober, spontaneous style.
The painter-illustrators were joined by Davies, a symbolist; Lawson, an Impressionist; and Prendergast, a neo-Impressionist.
It's taken the Gibbes two years of hard negotiating to nab this traveling show on the 100th anniversary of the Macbeth original. Fresh from its debut at Nashville's Cheekwood Botanical Garden & Museum of Art, it's an exhibition of 50 paintings by the Eight, many with links to the Gibbes' own collection.
Henri was exhibited on several occasions at the museum during his lifetime, and a vivid portrait called "The Green Fan" was purchased by the Gibbes after a 1913 installation.
According to Gibbes Executive Director Angela Mack, the museum also owns work by Luks, Shinn, and Lawson. Luks used a street-level point of view to show real people while Shinn's work was ahead of its time, with its bold lines and attention to moody shadows. His favorite subject was the theater, matching the urgent, in-your-face feel of his art.
"Painters of American Life shows the scope of these artists," Mack says. "It marks a point in time when this group really represented rebellion against what had gone before."
With 50 pieces on display, the Painters exhibition covers a lot of ground — Impressionism, symbolism, realism. Some of the artworks are gorgeous — particularly Henri's best portraits. Others are more interested in depicting the grim truth of urban life. The fact that an art show can contain so much and still hang together as a cohesive whole is a lesson in itself. Henri the nonconformist teacher would be proud.