Alfred Stieglitz, the Ashcan artists and their engagement with modernism

Essay 2011 10 Pages

Art - History of Art


Alfred Stieglitz, the Ashcan artists and their engagement with modernism

The aim of this essay is to compare and contrast Alfred Stieglitz’s engagement with modernism with that of the Ashcan artists. The first part concentrates on the personal background of the artists and introduces to their motivations and aims. The second part deals with the subjects of their works and the different technical approaches. The last part of the essay examines the differences between the two art forms, photography and painting.

Of course, the question arises whether or not such a comparison is reasonable: photography and painting are two entirely different art forms. The essay will face this basic difficulty and will conclude in an answer on it.

To compare the work of on one side Alfred Stieglitz and on the other side the Ashcan artists, it is important to understand the historical background that opened the way for modernism as a new era of arts. The term “modern” derives from the Latin “modernus” which means new and contemporary. In relation to art history it describes a movement that involves a break with what went before. It is not unanimous when this process started, but in this context it implies the time around the turn of the century. New York already back then was a big, heterogenic city in which an entertainment industry of theatres, cinemas and amusement parks emerged. In addition to that, new immigrants populated the city and enriched it with their own cultures and languages. At this time, New York evolved into the culture capital of the United States.[1] More and more painters, poets and photographers moved to the city and over time “the city itself became a primary subject of their work.”[2] This development can be seen as first step towards realism, a movement that raised the claim of showing nothing but the unadorned truth, based on everyday people and their lives.

Both, Alfred Stieglitz and the Ashcan artists, at the beginning were strangers to New York City. It is necessary to acknowledge the impact the city had upon the artists and their work. It was within the context of their new hometown that they got the motivation and inspiration to form their own aims in their particular art form.

Alfred Stieglitz (1864 – 1946), who was born in New Jersey, spent most of his youth in Germany and gathered his first photographic experiences during travels around Europe. When he returned to New York City in 1890 he felt forlorn, hated the city and felt disgusted about its “filthy streets”[3]. His attitude towards his new home changed when one year later he became a member of the Society of Amateur Photographers of New York. He began to see the city with new eyes – the eyes of a photographer who made it his aim to visualize his own perception of it. In photography Stieglitz found his destiny and became the leader of a new movement of photographers, which fought for the establishment of photography as accepted form of art, what, as he realized, not only implied a change of the perception of the art public, but also of photography itself into “the highest form of art of which [it] is capable“[4]. Therefor, Stieglitz demanded that photography should not longer try to look like painting.[5]

The American Ashcan artists were enmeshed in a struggle as well. In the time after the Columbian Word’s Fair the art galleries were filled with paintings of John Singer Sargent and his workmates of the so-called „Gilded Age“. Although they never were a formal school with hierarchical structures and an identical artistic style, the Ashcan artists (a title which was given to them in retrospect) essentially were comprised of a group of eight painters – known as “The Eight” – who exchanged ideas, collaborated on projects and shared artistic beliefs.[6] Except for Robert Henri, who was their leader and first source of inspiration, they all had worked as newspaper illustrators in Philadelphia before they came to New York City and became artists.[7] This journalistic background with its practice to represent reality influenced their understanding of art.[8] They set against the current Academic art and made it their maxim not to show the pomp and luxury of upper classes, but the dirty sides of the city, to literally depict even the ashcans on the street and to show everyday people in their everyday life. Picturing the city was their very own way to grasp the huge city and to deal with the ongoing change in it, in the first instance through the new arriving immigrants.


[1] cf. Zurier, Rebecca et al., Metropolitan lives : the Ashcan artists and their New York (Washington, D.C., National Museum of American Art, 1995, p.7).

[2] ibid.

[3] cf. NORMAN, Dorothy, Alfred Stieglitz: an American seer (New York, Aperture, 1990, p. 33).

[4] HOFFMAN, Katherine, Stieglitz: a beginning light (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2004, p. 110).

[5] cf. BLESH, Rudi, Modern art USA; men, rebellion, conquest, 1900-1956 (New York, Knopf, 1956, p. 30).

[6] cf. Zurier, 1995, pp. 13-14.

[7] cf. Zurier, 1995, p. 14.

[8] cf. ibid.


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Title: Alfred Stieglitz, the Ashcan artists and their engagement with modernism