Urban Views: Realist Prints and Drawings by Robert Henri and His Circle

John Sloan (American, 1871–1951). Swinging in the Square, 1912. Etching on laid paper. Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Louis E. Stern Foundation, Inc., 64.101.322

January 9–May 16, 2006

Urban Views: Realist Prints and Drawings by Robert Henri and His Circle features twenty rarely seen pieces taken from the Brooklyn Museum's large collection of works on paper. It is the latest presentation in a series of small exhibitions of rarely seen works on paper to be held in the Visible Storage ▪ Study Center of the Luce Center for American Art.

This selection highlights the work of Robert Henri and his followers, who emerged as leaders in a new movement in American art around 1905. These young artists—Henri, John Sloan, George Bellows, George Luks, Jerome Myers, William Glackens, and others—shared an intense interest in recording contemporary urban life.

Robert Henri and His Circle

Rebelling against the popular "art for art's sake" aesthetic that favored the wealthy and the beautiful as subjects, these Realists believed strongly that art ought to reflect "life in the raw" and that beauty could be found even in the most mundane activities and the poorest of neighborhoods. As new residents of New York, they were fascinated by crowded, hectic city life and recorded its many small and spectacular moments: people sitting on park benches, walking by the river, or riding the ferry; children playing in the street; and scenes of outdoor markets, vaudeville performances, boxing matches, breadlines, dock strikes, and trolley accidents.

Though many from the group enjoyed successful careers as commercial illustrators, Henri, an artist and teacher who had studied in Paris art academies, encouraged them to aim higher by taking up painting as a serious profession. They came to view art as a noble activity, a way to communicate something serious and great about life and humanity, and believed that art should reflect life, just as life must inform the making of art.

A loosely associated group of friends and associates, the artists have been known by many different names: the New York Realists, the Henri circle, the Depressionists, the Revolutionary Black Gang, the Ashcan School. Various members of the group occasionally exhibited together, but their only full collaboration was the famous exhibition of works by The Eight, held at Macbeth Galleries in 1908.

Recorders of City Life
Although the artists of the Henri circle are best known for their paintings, they created a rich body of works on paper—the focus of this small exhibition. Because they specialized in documenting and interpreting contemporary life, their most vivid and characteristic works are drawings and sketches that directly record their personal observations of the world around them. Sometimes these sketches served as visual notes for larger, more finished paintings or prints, but just as often, like George Luks's drawings of a man reading a newspaper and a pony ride concession at a city park, they were drawn purely for the sake of capturing the telling gestures, poses, characters, and other details of New York life.

Commercial Illustration
Three of the works in the show are illustrations, including a hilarious scene by William Glackens of children at a school or orphanage playing with their Christmas toys. This group highlights the artists' successful and prolific careers as commercial illustrators. Their commissions for short stories, nonfiction articles, and illustrated novels ranged from stories set on the Lower East Side to tales of the New York rich to racy French novels by Paul de Kock. Ultimately, all these freelance jobs would inform the artists' approach to city life in their paintings.

While their work was very much connected to contemporary life, the Realists were also heavily indebted to the great art of the past. Inspired by the graphic works of Rembrandt, Goya, Honoré Daumier, and Albrecht Dürer, some took up the media of etching and lithography, and in doing so were among the first artists to revive the art of fine printmaking in the United States. Sloan became a master craftsman and was, in etchings such as Swinging in the Square and The Barber Shop, a biting social critic. Myers specialized in etching, working in black and white as well as color. Having already made a name for himself as a painter, Bellows took up lithography in 1916. His prints, such as Business Men's Class and In the Park, both shown here, were quite popular, often judged by critics to be his best works.

Exhibition Highlights

William J. Glackens: Merry Christmas George Benjamin Luks: Pony Ride George W. Bellows: Business Men's Class