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1908 Seventy-five Years Ago

March 2023
1min read

Twenty-five years after Mrs. Vanderbilt’s party—which had become a symbol of wealth and aristocracy—the Bohemians took over. On February 3 there opened at the Macbeth Gallery in New York City an exhibition of “The Eight,” a group consisting of Robert Henri (the master spirit of the occasion), Everett Shinn, John Sloan, Arthur B. Davies, Ernest Lawson, Maurice Prendergast, George Luks, and William Glackens. Their subject matter was the life they found in the city around them, including tenements, saloons, pool halls, and slums.

As with any movement, a philosophical position was expounded in support of the work and has now become a familiar chapter in art history; what it boiled down to was a uniquely American brand of realism. Luks, Sloan, Glackens, and Shinn all worked as newspaper illustrators and cartoonists, but they, and the rest, had absorbed the lessons of impressionist and postimpressionist painting and were not deluded by any notions of “photographic” transcription. This was not a revolution but a change of course: a few years later The Eight were absorbed into a larger group called the Ashcan school (Holger Cahill and Alfred Barr first used the term in 1934), which included Bellows and Hopper among others.

How was it all received? There was the inevitable conservative reaction, with the phrase “apostles of ugliness” thrown about for a while. But attendance averaged five hundred people a day, and Sloan reported: “We’ve made a success—Davies says an epoch. … Macbeth is pleased as punch.” And none other than Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney bought four of the paintings.

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