"New Women" of the Early Twentieth Century: Shopping and Urban Life

John Sloan: Movies-- 5 Cents (1907) Sloan: South Beach Bathers (1907-08)

John Sloan chronicled the working class new woman at home in the tenement, or on her free time at the movies and the beach.  In his paintings of working class women, he visually suggests that all women are worthy of being shown as subject.  Although we can readily note that his paintings of women are still intended for the male viewer, he has changed the subject in a way that might appeal to the female viewer as well.  These women are engaged in ordinary life and in most of his paintings, they appear comfortable in their activities and their bodies.  This comfort is communicated by the relaxed and expansive postures we see in many of his paintings as well as by the free brushwork, the tendency to avoid close-up details, and the overall sense of activity in the way he paints and in the subject matter.  At the same time, we can also note that while he expands the realm of what we look at, he hasn't truly abandoned the belief that women's lives are and should be restricted by patriarchal culture.  In much the same way that Homer's horseback rider was restricted by the line of riders of which she was a part, Sloan's women also lead restricted lives.

John Sloan: Sunday, Women Drying Their Hair (1912) Winslow Homer: The Bridle Path, White Mountains, 1868

The Ashcan School

George Luks: Hester Street, 1905 George Bellows: Cliff Dwellers, 1913

The realist painters associated with the Ashcan school presented the first real challenge to American academicism in art and to the American tendency to adopt European styles and subject matter.  Like Sloan, basically all of the members of the Ashcan school had started in journalism--this, not surprisingly, directed their interests toward less glamorous, grittier parts of urban life. Their motto, the search for truth, was at heart an opposition to idealized beauty, which academic painting tended to put in the place of truth.
Many of their early paintings were urban scenes, a setting which might seem to be a deliberate rejection of the beautified landscape and in some cases, a rejection of the beautiful woman who sat in the garden.  Yet, by painting the city from an aerial perspective, or leaving people out of the scene, as many of their paintings did, they achieved the opposite of their presumed goal of creating a gritty art of the city.  Only when they began to address the actual street scene, from the perspective of people living and working in the street, did they begin to capture the essence of the city.

Sloan: The Cot, 1907 Sloan: A Woman's Work, 1912 Sloan: Three a.m., 1909

Sloan’s decision to paint lower class women is a departure, even if we acknowledge the fact that the women are still locked into the female sphere.  Before Sloan, portraits of women remained tied to traditional representations of women.  Sloan departs from that in several ways: for one, these are not named portraits but paintings of unidentifiable yet particular women engaged in mundane activities associated with the daily life of working class women.  There is enough detail for us to imagine something about their feelings but the scenes and faces are too ambiguous or hidden for us to put complete stories to them.  We will never be able to name these women, and that may be the point: the paintings are about their lives, not about them.

Urban Regionalism and the New Shopper

William Glackens: Shoppers, 1907 Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones: The Shoe Shop, 1912 (at the Art Institute)

Artists increasingly turned their attention to the street–the new commercial, shopping districts, the urban parks where workers spent their lunch hours, the barber shops and sports arenas where men went for their leisure, the movie theaters and dance halls and the subway.  These paintings depict a form of life which begins to consist of varying ethnic groups, lower class workers, people looking for work, and people looking for cheap entertainment and cheap products to buy.  For the most part, these are not paintings which are passing judgment or offering a critical statement about the way things were.  Indeed, these artists seem to go out of their way to avoid the political demonstrations which are taking place in the neighborhoods they’re painting.  In contrast, the new woman is an important part of these paintings because these are paintings of the city as a spectacle and a city of consumers.  The paintings by Glackens and Sparhawk-Jones relate to the new interest in shopping although both seem to be directed toward the wealthier woman who shops, rather than the woman who shops at the Fit-Yourself Shop.  Both paintings convey a sense of the urban scene as lively, if not chaotic, and they do it through the compositions which are crowded with figures.  Sparhawk-Jones captures the chaos of shopping to an even greater degree than Glackens--the impressionist brush work of her painting, the way the faces are almost all turned down or to the side so that we can't see them, and the intermingled areas of black and white all contribute to the sense of motion and work in this shoe store.

Miller's paintings of shoppers are women who are not jazz-age flappers; nor are they updated versions of the Republican mother.  They may be matronly, and they are usually idealized homemakers who fit the image of the type of woman sought after by commercial and business concerns.  In other words, these are women who will support the economy by shopping but will then go home and be a homemaker.  Miller’s shoppers are never as elegant as the women we see in Glackens’ painting, although perhaps that reflects the fact that Glackens’ wife is one of the models for his painting.  Miller’s women, not poor but not upper class, are shopping for the products of middle class consumer culture.

Kenneth Hayes Miller: The Department Store, 1930 (etching) Miller: Women with Umbrellas, 1930 
(oil on board)
Kyra Markham: The Fit Yourself Shop, 1935 
(lithograph, 13 x 10")

While painters such as Miller or Sparhawk-Jones treated shopping as a more contemplative activity in which the woman watched herself in the mirror or asserted her staid position in society, Kyra Markham gives us an entirely different view.  Markham was not alone in depicting the bargain basements and the stores which had communal dressing rooms, and probably rats, although it is an unusual glimpse into the life style of the working-class woman.