The Chicago Seven and the Catonsville Nine had nothing on The Eight. Critics called their work vulgar. The public was shocked.
The rebel American artists dared to paint blind singers, street folks and a girl in a hot- orange gown, shunning the mid-Victorian idyllic still life, pretty landscapes and standard interiors then still the rage. In 1908, The Eight were booted out of the National Academy of Design's annual exhibition.
Seventy-five years later, the Hirshhorn is showing "The Eight and the Independent Tradition in American Art." It's a fine excuse to bring out some of the best in the museum's permanent collection.
Robert Henri, John Sloan, William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn, Ernest Lawson, Arthur B. Davies and Maurice Prendergast were The Eight. All friends and mostly newspaper artists, they constituted the first truly American art movement of the century, under the generally acknowledged leadership of Henri.
Five of the eight orignally formed a group called the New York Realists, a term critics later trashed in favor of the Ashcan School. The five then became eight. In 1908, after their rejection by the Academy, the insurgents organized a protest show at Manhattan's William Macbeth Galleries -- showing works that deliberately avoided the syrupy subjects winning the Academy's praises.
Their styles were highly individual: cityscapes by Prendergast, allegorical figure studies by Davies, an acrobat falling by Shinn, portraits by Henri. The tone of the show is quiet, almost staid. Only the early reviews are provocative -- "startling," "blah!" and "like an explosion in a color factory" -- showing revolution to be just another growing pain. THE EIGHT -- and the Independent Tradition in American Art, through March 15 at the Hirshhorn.