NEW YORK — GUTS! Guts! Life! Life! That's my technique!'' boasted American Realist painter George Luks. ``I can paint with a shoestring dipped in pitch and lard.''
It's no wonder Luks's Realist colleagues in the first decade of this century, artists like Robert Henri, John Sloan, and George Bellows, were dismissed as barbarians by an older, genteel generation of artists known as the American Impressionists.
The latter group, considered the height of radical American art in the late 1880s, consisted of gentlemanly painters such as William Merritt Chase, J. Alden Weir, and Childe Hassam. Chase, their leader who specialized in the style's sun-soaked scenes and portraits of the leisure class, dubbed his Realist rivals ``depressionists.'' A bit like an opera buff criticizing rap music, he complained that in the Realists' gritty, urban tableaux, ``they paint the gruesome.''
The two camps, one glorifying nature and affluence, the other praising the city and working class, seem diametrically opposed. An exhibition of 83 paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, ``American Impressionism and Realism: The Painting of Modern Life, 1885-1915,'' demonstrates how the two factions shared an upbeat view of life.
It is clear that both groups benefitted from the innovations of the French Impressionists. Those earlier rebels, around the mid-1860s, broke with academic convention, which required crisply drawn, highly finished paintings of mythological or historical subjects. To the public's initial outrage, the Impressionists used a broken brushstroke to capture snippets of modern life and dappled landscapes.
In homage to Monet, the American Impressionists borrowed his flickering brushstrokes and high-key palette to render vignettes of refined upper-class life and idyllic pastoral scenes.
The Realists used the same rapid brushwork but adopted the darker tones, dramatic lighting, and dissonant outlook of Manet and Degas. In contrast to the American Impressionists' gentrified parlors, the Realists showed the seamy side of the street. ``A child of the slums will make a better painting,'' Luks said, ``than a drawing-room lady gone over by a beauty shop.''
The subjects chosen by the two schools differed according to the artists' class sympathies. Scions of the old-guard aristocracy, the Impressionists portrayed posh enclaves such as the Hamptons on Long Island, N.Y. Illustrators for populist newspapers, the Realists depicted blue-collar playgrounds such as Coney Island.
Even though their subjects differed, both groups tended to, as the song goes, ``accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.'' In ``The Lake for Miniature Yachts'' (1890), Chase idealized Central Park into a bucolic vision. In a similar spirit, Sloan painted the working class as unremittingly gleeful.
THE exhibition is installed according to the paintings' subjects, so viewers can easily judge how treatments vary. For example, three Impressionists (Willard Metcalf, Hassam, and John Twachtman) render Gloucester (Mass.) Harbor. In their views, boats glide regally on calm seas. In Sloan's Realist version executed about 15 years later, dark clouds boil overhead, a schooner heels at a 45-degree angle, and vigorous brushstrokes activate the entire canvas.
The Realists captured the vitality of urban America. Because they depicted ``lowlife'' subjects, such as boxing and vaudeville, and locales such as tenements for immigrants, they were dubbed the Ashcan School - their works considered fit for the trash heap.
The Ashcan painters, in turn, disdained the Impressionists' escapism. For them, Impressionism implied a retreat from the hurly-burly into static estheticism.
Strolling through the Impressionists' scenes of seashores and parks is like looking at a field of poppies through rose-colored glasses: beautiful subjects painted beautifully. ``Isn't that exquisite?'' one viewer gasped at Sargent's opalescent ``In the Luxembourg Gardens'' (1879). Another exclaimed, ``Magnificent!'' at the lavender light of Theodore Robinson's ``A Bird's Eye View'' (1889). Both Sargent and Robinson learned to portray atmospheric effects from Monet by working beside him at Giverny.
The Realists' laughing plebeians are equally appealing. Smiles wreathe the faces of children of the poor as they tumble boisterously in a wrestling match, cavort on the dance floor, or zoom down a snowy hill on sleds. The joyful scenes convey an impression of lost innocence. For the Realists, slums were a source of delight, and the bustling masses an untapped resource. In ``Hester Street'' (1905), Luks paints a crowded Lower East Side street with the verve of a county fair.
The expressive brushwork suggesting motion employed by both schools is a fitting visual analogue for the society they recorded. At that time of unprecedented change, the forces of immigration, urbanization, and industrialization were rapidly transforming American life. None of these wrenching factors daunted the painters' optimism.
Two events finally put an end to their good-natured, can-do spirit: The Armory Show in 1913, which first displayed European modernists like Picasso and Matisse, rendered representational styles passe. World War I made naive idealism obsolete.
Thereafter, it would be difficult to assert that art should represent, as the novelist W.D. Howells put it in 1891, ``the more smiling aspects of life, which are the more American.''
* The exhibition continues through July 24. It then travels to the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas (Aug. 21 to Oct. 30); The Denver Art Museum (Dec. 3 to Feb. 5, 1995); and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (March 12 to May 14, 1995).