Modernism in America introduced by The Eight

The famous Armory Show of 1913 exposed American tastemakers to the latest developments in European modernism through exhibiting paintings by Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Kandinsky, Duchamp and others. Although the audience’s reaction was largely negative, art historians mark the Armory Show as a turning point in the development of modern art in America. However, it was not America’s first exposure. Picasso and Matisse had been exhibited in the 69th Cavalry Regiment Armory in previous years. And earlier still, a successful 1908 show at New York’s Macbeth Galleries proved that American artists were already on their own road to modernity. Called “The Eight,” the group of artists at the Macbeth show continued to paint for years afterward, but apart from one another.

The current exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum, “The Eight and American Modernisms,” is well titled. Aside from rejecting the norms of art academies and heeding the call to paint the modern world in all its imperfections, each of The Eight followed a distinct path. By the time of the 1908 group exhibit, The Eight were already at the threshold of creating something new and quite different from the traditions that dominated American art in past decades. Those eight painters, Arthur B. Davies, William Glackens, Robert Henri, Ernest Lawson, George Luks, Maurice B. Prendergast, Everett Shinn and John Sloan, emerged as the first generation of early American modernists.

Henri (1865-1929) was the principal organizer of the Macbeth exhibit. Well connected to the city’s art establishment, he taught at the New York School of Art where his student roster included Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent and George Bellows. As an elected member of the National Academy of Design, Henri became disappointed with what he saw as the stale and stodgy status quo. When four of his colleagues’ submissions for the Academy’s 1907 exhibit were rejected, Henri resigned his membership and began planning the Macbeth show, maintaining it should be unjuried and with “no unity in any cult of painting.” The Eight’s show at the Macbeth was a landmark event, influencing the Ashcan School, the characteristic form of American social realism in the early 20th century. Known for his portraiture, Henri’s paintings have sold at auction for as high as $3 million.

While stylistically different, the aim of the eight artists was the same: To capture a scene with a glance, relying on the mood of the moment rather than painting what is apparent. With visual poetic license, every picture would hold a story that would pique the viewer’s imagination.

Four of The Eight were newspaper illustrators for the Philadelphia Press and had a trained reporter’s eye for identifying an engaging subject. Glackens’ work was anecdotal, depicting whimsical stories of shoppers and diners scurrying up and down the busy streets of the city. His palette was bright and filled with color. Sloan’s work was somber with muddy, ruddy tones defining the urban working class at work and at play. Shinn sought to paint a cosmopolitan cityscape bustling with theater scenes and music halls dabbed with a vaudevillian flair and a neo-rococo style. Luks’s style was dark and vulgar; his depictions of bar room brawls or unescorted ladies on the dimly-lit streets were meant to shock. He loved to prowl the streets recording life as he saw it.

Glackens’ (1870-1938) body of work includes editorial works on paper with watercolors and drawings ranging in price at auction from $600 to $200,000, and oil paintings have sold at auction from $1,000 to just shy of $1 million. A rare poster from 1899 of Scribner’s August Fiction periodical recently sold for $600 (hammer).

Luks’s (1867-1933) auction results include numerous graphite sketches on paper, complete with the artist’s notes alongside the images, ranging from $120 to $40,000 for a full color watercolor on paper. His oil paintings have sold from $1,000 to $290,000.

Shinn (1876-1953) was the youngest member of The Eight and closely identified with the Ashcan School style. His illustrations appeared in periodicals such as Metropolitan Magazine, Century Magazine and Everybody’s Magazine. In addition he illustrated stories by Charles Dickens and Washington Irving and worked as an art director for several early motion pictures. His watercolors and other works on paper sold at auction starting at under $1,000 to as high as just over $300,000. His pastels and oil paintings run from $2,500 to $7 million.

Sloan (1871-1951) taught at the Arts Student League and became a spokesman for modern art as a medium of communication and a means of enriching life. He was eulogized shortly after his death as an important teacher and artist and an activist who worked for creative freedom. Auction results for his works on paper range from $300 to $14,000 and his oils from $4,000 to $2.7 million.

Lawson (1873-1939) was the landscape painter in the group at a time when the genre had gone stale. Formulating a new approach, Lawson was an innovator in creating landscape painting for modern-day America. Considered a realist, romantic and an Impressionist, he traveled throughout New England and the South, Canada, Spain and Colorado, creating images of the changing world. Using surface texture, unusual color schemes and vibrant brushwork, he established himself as a modern landscape painter. Auction sales for his oil paintings range from $7,500 to $260,000.

Davies (1863-1928) began as a billboard painter and magazine illustrator before venturing into the avant-garde and eventually settling on classicism. He is best known for his ethereal, dream-like nymphs abounding in classical landscape. His works on paper have sold at auction from $175 to $4,600 and his works on canvas run from $1,300 to $35,000.

Perhaps the best known of the group, Prendergast (1858-1924) is considered a post-Impressionist painter whose distinctive style was quite unlike the social realism of his fellow Eight. His key theme was leisure at the seashore, executed with a mastery of mosaic-like color within a carefully crafted use of space. Watercolors on paper at auction fetch from $13,000 to $1.7 million. His prints (color monotypes) sell well and have brought $20,000 to $165,000 at auction.

A century after opening America’s eyes to modernism, the work left behind by The Eight retains its power to make us see the world through fresh eyes.

Mary Manion is the acting director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio, Milwaukee. She can be reached at