The streetscapes and street life of New York City are some of the most robust sensorial experiences. From towering skyscrapers to bright flashing lights to pungent (sometimes fragrant) smells and blaring sounds, the city runs on energy. It has been said that if the United States were a car, New York City would be its motor. The early years of the 20th century in New York City were a particularly visceral experience and provided a perfect palette for artists. Rebelling against the current trends of the American Impressionists painting images of the haute bourgeoisie of Park Avenue, Central Park, and Washington Square, and out of a desire to create a more realistic view of the gritty urban environment, the Ashcan School was born. And from it, the institution which came to be known as the Whitney Museum.
The Ashcan School, a disparaging term suggested by a drawing by George Bellows which he captioned Disappointment of the Ash Can, were a group of Realists who sought to set themselves apart from the American Impressionists. Unlike their contemporaries, they documented everyday life in New York City, depicting the rapid changes in urban life and culture, while seeking new forms of realism. Founded by the artist Robert Henri, the original group including George Luks, John Sloan, Everett Shinn, Maurice Prendergast, Ernest Lawson, Arthur B. Davies, William J. Glackens, later joined by George Bellows, focused on life on the Lower East Side and the grittier precincts of Greenwich Village and Lower Manhattan. While their works varied in style, they each trained their eye on the unknown parts of town. Immigrants, dockworkers, nightclub performers, boxers, the landscape and the life of workers were their subjects. They supported Henri’s credo— “art for life’s sake,” rather than “art for art’s sake.”
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, an art collector and sculptor, was arguably the most influential art patron of the 20th century. Born into one of the most wealthy and prominent American families, Whitney was dedicated to supporting artists in order to promote distinctly American art. She was a champion of the work of “The Eight,” the original name the Ashcan painters gave themselves, and collected their work and supported them in many ways. In 1914, Whitney established her Studio in Greenwich Village, presenting exhibitions of works that were otherwise disregarded. In 1916 she commissioned Robert Henri, leader of the movement, to paint a portrait of her. When Henri’s painting was finished, Mrs. Whitney’s husband, Harry Payne Whitney, refused to allow her to hang it in their opulent Fifth Avenue townhouse. He didn’t want his friends to see a picture of his wife, as he put it, “in pants.” Mrs. Whitney’s attire and self-possessed demeanor were highly unusual for a well-bred woman of her day. In the painting, Henri transforms the traditional genre of a recumbent female—usually a nude courtesan or the goddess Venus—into a portrait of the quintessential “modern” woman. The portrait by Henri became the bedrock of the Whitney collection.
The Whitneys continued to purchase real estate in the Village, and in 1918 they opened the Whitney Studio Club, located at 147 West 4th Street. By 1929, Whitney had collected more than 500 works of American art. She offered her collection to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, but the venerable institution refused to accept it, stating that they would no longer be collecting American art. She refused to let go of the unique works by unrecognized artists, so she determined to establish her own museum. The Whitneys annexed two neighboring row houses on West 8th Street, right next to the original Studio, and renamed the larger space the Whitney Museum of American Art. This Greenwich Village location remained the museum’s home until 1954. (The New York Studio School now resides in the museum’s original address.)
You can read more about the Ashcan School here.