The term “school” means a group of painters, writers, scholars, etc., whose works exhibit similar characteristics and differ from other groups in terms of thoughts or behavior. There are various artistic school of thoughts, such as Impressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism. In the United States, there was an artistic movement called Ashcan School. How awkward it is to name a group of artists as an ashcan! This impressive name has derived from George Bellows’ drawing, which depicts three vagrants scrutinizing the contents of an ash can.
The Ashcan School has come to prominence during the end of the 19th century and early 20th century in New York. The group sought to draw paintings that capture the distinctive characteristics of the U.S., in defiance of Impressionism or conservative academic artistic movements that were the mainstream art movement at the time. This painting that Bellows drew when he was 30 is one of the most representative paintings that captures the essence of the Ashcan School.
The working-class crowd is nervously awaiting something at Brooklyn Harbor in freezing winter cold, worrying whether there might be work for them. Their work is to load and unload horses and cargoes from anchored ships. Even if it is low wage work, such work is hard to find. A man in the left side of the painting is lowering his head, having failed to get one. Other workers seem to be sorry for him. Across the river in Manhattan stand arrogant looking, high-rise buildings where the rich live. Workers who might have built those buildings cannot dare to dream living in them. The wild current of the cold river serves as a border that divides the urban poor and the wealthy. For those who have lost hope, life must have borne ashy color, like ashes thrown into garbage. The painter realistically portrays the other side of a glamorous city, New York, by depicting working-class people living in poverty.
Bellows suddenly died at the age of 43, and he never joined the ranks of great artists during his lifetime. The Ashcan School soon lost momentum and considered out of date in the face of Cubism and Fauvism. However, Bellows is now recognized as one of the most important American painters in early 20th century. The National Gallery in London purchased this painting for 25.5 million dollars in 2014. It was the first work done by an American painter the British national art museum collected.