by Robert A. Slayton. State University of New York Press, September 2017. 195 p. ill. ISBN 9781438466415 (h/c), $28.75.
Reviewed January 2018
As Robert A. Slayton, Henry Salvatori Professor of American Values and Traditions at Chapman University, states in his opening chapter, Beauty in the City: The Ashcan School is not an art history text, but rather a work of history. The book focuses more on the inhabitants of a developing modernized city than it does on a traditional art history analysis of an important school of American artists. Like the Ashcan artists, Slayton is interested in the working-class people of New York City and their role in establishing America’s first true cosmopolitan city. By the turn of the century, more and more Americans were migrating to these new urban centers where the working-class mingled with the upper-class, newly arrived immigrants established roots, and traditional gender roles were being redefined. Slayton puts into context the ideological thinking of the time. Beauty in the City depicts a dynamic and diverse class of individuals in control of their own destiny.
The content of the book is not told in a linear fashion, which can be problematic for those searching for the evolution of the movement. The book begins with the height of the Ashcan artists with their show at the Macbeth Galleries in 1908. In chapters following, Slayton provides brief biographical information on the Ashcan artists and introduces artists such as Thomas Eakins and Thomas Pollock Anshutz that came before the Ashcan group. The book contains ten chapters, 111 illustrations throughout the book to support Slayton’s thesis, a list of notes, a bibliography, and index. While the illustrations are helpful in visually understanding Slayton’s descriptions of New York City life, the images appear to be dark. The book has durable binding with good quality paper.
Beauty in the City is an interesting work of urban history at the turn of the century and a quick read. As a work of art history, the book barely scratches the surface of an important group of artists that brought to light the portrait of a truly modernized urban city. While the book highlights the Ashcan artists, it might not have enough information that would be useful for art historians or art libraries in need of a new text on the group. The book would be more relevant for those wanting to understand New York City and its working-class people in a historical context. Recommended for academic libraries.