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George Bellows and New York, 1900–1930

The Changing Face of Urban Life
By the late 19th century, people were flocking into New York City from across America and abroad, drawn by economic opportunities and hopes for a better life. Some Americans feared that the jumble of ethnic and racial groups would not be able to assimilate into their society, creating tension and conflict. Commercialized entertainment sought to appeal across differences. Spectator sports such as boxing attracted many who wished to find pleasure in gambling and drinking. Electric street lights made new entertainment like movies and amusements parks possible, allowing people to enjoy a livelier nightlife.Ashcan School artists—supposedly so-named from the drawing “Disappointments of the Ash Can” by George Bellows—were keen observers of these urban changes. Unlike the predominant American Impressionists, who primarily painted middle-class life, Ashcan artists chose to depict and exaggerate popular entertainment, new immigrants, and the working class. They constructed images to show modern urban life in realistic, matter-of-fact terms, depicting behavior uninhibited by respectable convention in both public and private spaces. Ashcan artists like Bellows and John Sloan represented more personal, private topics and scenes that had been largely ignored until this period.