Historical Context: The turn-of-the-century city fascinated artists. From 1880–1920, unprecedented numbers of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe transformed American cities, bringing new languages, cultures, and skills. While American painters had traditionally taken rural scenes and upper-class people as their subjects, a group of painters in the early twentieth century, known as the Ashcan School artists, instead turned their eyes to overflowing urban immigrant neighborhoods and their poor and working-class inhabitants. At the same time, the advancing technology of photography allowed documentary photographers to point their cameras toward similar urban neighborhoods and scenes. In this activity, you are an art critic drafting an essay for a catalogue accompanying an exhibition, titled Eyes of The City, that includes paintings and photographs from the early 1900s.
Goal: To consider how artists interpret the social world around them; to reflect on how images function as historical evidence.
Themes: immigration, urban society, working-class life and culture.
Skills: image analysis; organizing information for written presentation.
Materials: The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Ashcan School essay and collection (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ashc/hd_ashc.htm); and Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl (http://web.gc.cuny.edu/ashp/heaven/index.html), a Web site by the American Social History Project. Note: Suggested duration for this activity is 60 minutes, but teachers may want to modify time limits for each step.
Step 1: Studying the Ashcan School (25 minutes)
Working with a partner, examine the work of a group of painters known as the Ashcan School, through the online collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ashc/hd_ashc.htm)
Navigating directions: On the opening page you can read the introductory essay, click on the images across the top to get specific information about the works of art and artists in the collection. Explore the collection, reading the curator’s notes and examining images.
After you have scanned through the collection, pick one or two works to focus on. Look carefully at each image and take some notes. What do you see in this image? What feeling do you get from it? What information can you glean about the nature of life in the changing city? What can you tell about the attitudes of the artist?
Step 2: Urban Documentary Photographers of the 1900s (15 minutes)
Now consider some photographs taken in New York City in the early twentieth century.
Read "Seeing Is Believing," a brief discussion of social documentary photography on the Heaven Will Protect The Working Girl Web site (http://web.gc.cuny.edu/ashp/heaven/fseeing.html)
Examine the photographs available on the Heaven web site; choose the entries under "Additional Images" in the Primary Documents section of the site. (http://web.gc.cuny.edu/ashp/heaven/docs.html).
Pick one or two photos to examine in detail. Look carefully at each photo and take some notes. What do you see in this photo? What feeling do you get from it? What information can you glean about the nature of life in the changing city? What can you tell about the attitudes of the photographer?
Step 3: Preparing Your Essay: (20 minutes)
Sketch the outline of an essay comparing the painters of the Ashcan school and the early twentieth-century social documentary photographers. How are they similar and different? What subjects did they focus on? What feelings does their work convey? What can you tell about the attitude of the artists toward their subjects? How does the different medium used by these artists affect the nature of their work? What do these images tell you about the period that other kinds of historical documents do not? What else might you want to know about the turn-of-the-century city that these images don’t tell you?