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Last week, my mother-in-law and I had the opportunity to spend some time at the newly renovated DIA. The renovations were extensive and the museum looks fabulous; the last several times I’d visited, construction was still ongoing and it was difficult to see where it was all going. However, the wait was certainly worth it.

I love the DIA. While Detroit is unlikely to be known as a cultural Mecca, it has a couple of attractions that really recommend it in this regard… the Art Institute and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The Institute has a vast and distinguished collection from all over the world and from all time periods, but the exceptional inventory of antiquities is what really grabs me. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to browse much in that area because a good chunk of our time was spent exploring the current exhibit, featuring Ashcan Art.

I was familiar with this movement by name only, so found it interesting that the name derived from these artists’ focus on gritty, urban and often dark subjects – something of a departure from their Impressionist forebears, to say the least.

The emphasis of this particular exhibit was how Ashcan Artists portrayed common recreational pastimes of the day. In promoting this event, the DIA explains, ” From bars to beaches to boxing, Ashcan artists caught Americans at play 100 years ago. Use your free time to see how they spent theirs…”, and named the exhibit “Life’s Pleasures”. Broken up into multiple rooms, paintings were grouped by the pastimes depicted… athletics, picnics and croquet, carnivals and circuses, bars and cafes, beach scenes and so on. Less savory subjects that would have been considered inappropriate by polite society of the day (1895-1925) also appeared with flourish.

These artists were nearly all American, and painted mostly in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Some of the landscapes were just stunning, given this geography.

I’m including two images that show how far these artists ranged in their subjects.

This first image is named Chez Mouquin, and was painted by Williams Glackens. A larger than life personality, Glackens liked to include himself in his works and thus pictures himself here with the wife of the owner of this elegant cafe. His own elegantly coiffed wife sits just behind him, facing away from the viewer. Up close, what really struck me about this painting was the beautiful detail in her dress, especially throughout the skirt.

What could be more genteel?


Meanwhile, another sort of crowd cheers on legendary boxer Jack Dempsey as he fights Argentine contender Luis Angel Firpo in 1923. The fight drew over 80,000 spectators. While Dempsey is the gentleman taking a header into the crowd, he ultimate prevailed with a second round knockout.

Dempsey and Firpo by George Bellows

Dempsey and Firpo by George Bellows