Featured Lot: A Piece of American Academic History


In this ongoing series for Fine Art Today, we take a longer look at the history and features of a soon-to-be-available artwork of note. This week’s painting is by a founder of the 19th-century Ashcan School. Will you recognize his name?

The Ashcan School­, also called the Ash Can School, was a loosely organized art movement during the early 20th century best known for works depicting everyday life in New York City. Rebels against American Impressionism, the group’s members sought a “journalistic” approach to their work, seeking to use art to more accurately portray early modern life in poorer regions of Manhattan.

The group’s spiritual father, Robert Henri (1865-1929), encouraged his friends and protégés to create a new, more realistic art that spoke directly to their own time and experiences. Henri was also a key organizer of a controversial 1908 exhibition entitled “The Eight” at Macbeth Galleries in New York. Igniting considerable criticism and debate, the show was aimed at challenging the National Academy of Design’s exhibition policies and narrowness of taste.

Henri’s oeuvre is incredibly varied and eclectic, ranging from tightly rendered figures to highly expressive cityscapes. Heading to auction on February 11 via Neal Auction Company is a splendid picture of ballerinas that, ironically, recalls the works of Edgar Degas. Regardless, the magnificent piece displays a group of loosely rendered dancers against a colorful abstracted background. Indeed, the spatial context of the scene is not known, but the painting still contains a lovely amount of vitality, narrative, and color. Scholars Milton Brown and Theresa Brakeley suggest, “In this painting offered here, Henri uses a dark palette reminiscent of Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas. The dimness of the room is amplified due to the harsh light from the orchestra illuminating the dancers, who are clustered in the lower right quadrant of the canvas. Henri captures the frenzy of the stage and elegant movement of the dancers with lively brushstrokes.

“Ever the meticulous diarist, Henri kept detailed record books of his paintings, which he would label with a code of numbers and letters. This canvas is marked ‘126 A3’ and is listed as ‘“Ballet-Black Crook” Phila 1894.’ He also made notes about the color palette used here, a ‘gray greenish light’ as well as the composition, ‘many figures, six prominent.’”

Auction estimates are between $15,000 and $25,000. To learn more, visit Live Auctioneers.

This article was featured in Fine Art Today, a weekly e-newsletter from Fine Art Connoisseur magazine. To start receiving Fine Art Today for free, click here.


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