A native of Staten Island, New York, Edmund Ashe studied at the Metropolitan Art School and at the Art Students League with Charles Vanderhoof and John Stimson. Described as a "darn fine pen and ink man who later took up painting" (Tarrant, p. 11), he began his career as an illustrator, producing drawings for various magazines, including Colliers, Harper’s, Scribner’s, and St. Nicholas. Ashe also painted "Gibson Girl" watercolors and provided illustrations for such books as In Camp with a Tin Soldier by John Kendrick Bangs (1892); and Richard Harding Davis’s works, Her First Appearance (1901), Ransom’s Folly (1902), and The Bar Sinister (1903).
From 1896 until 1909, during the administrations of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, Ashe served as the White House artist-correspondent for Leslie’s Weekly, the New York Tribune, and the New York World. During this period, he also taught at the Art Students League and at William Merritt Chase’s New York Art School, where he met and befriended Robert Henri. In 1905, Ashe moved to Westport, Connecticut and, together with George Hand Wright, was a founder of the art colony that developed there. He was also instrumental in the establishment of the Silvermine Guild in Norwalk. Active in several arts organizations, including the New York Watercolor Club and Society of Independent Artists, Ashe was one of the first members of the Society of Illustrators, having joined in the first month of the club’s founding in 1901.
Ashe taught illustration at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh from 1920 until 1939, eventually becoming Head of the Department of Painting and Design. During off hours, he applied himself to genre scenes of the local steel industry, creating a number of expressive, nearly hallucinatory images of the workmen and their powerful machinery. Credited with capturing the "extraordinary picturesqueness of the Pittsburgh community" (quoted in Schruers, p. 2), he was a regular exhibitor with the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh. Ashe’s work was also highlighted in faculty shows. Shortly before his retirement, he painted murals representing the main industries of Pittsburgh—steel, coal, and petroleum—for the rotunda of the Steidle Building at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. His work is also represented in the Steidle Collection, established by Edward Steidle in 1929.
Ashe’s earliest oils, such as Capital, were rendered in an impressionist style. During the first decade of the twentieth century, however, he adopted a more progressive realist approach. Thereafter, his paintings assumed a darker tonal range and broader brushstrokes, reminiscent of the work of Robert Henri and the Ashcan school.
Until his 1939 retirement to Charleston, Ashe continued to spend the summer months in Westport, traveling with George Wright and others to various locations, including the Maryland shore, where he made sketches for Boat in from Baltimore. He also continued to exhibit in New York. In 1929, a selection of his paintings of the people of the Cumberland Mountains was shown with great success at the Ferargil Galleries, his principal dealer there. A reviewer wrote: "Possibly no finer record of the mountaineers has appeared than Mr. Ashe has created. . . . They are drawn as a skilled photographer might catch them and placed in settings chosen by an eye trained to harmonious color and well-proportioned design" (quoted in Schruers, p. 2). While all of these pictures were well received, Useless, a sober portrait of a young Cumberland boy, seems to have been one of the artist’s favorites, for he showed it in Pittsburgh two years later, in an exhibition highlighting the work of the faculty of the College of Fine Arts, the first time the staff had been invited to exhibit as a group. In that exhibition, the canvas was titled Useless: A Mountain Boy (Exhibition of Works, p. 1). NRS
Exhibit of Works By the Faculty of the College of Fine Arts, Carnegie Institute of Technology, February 8 to February 26. No year given; probably 1931.
Schruers, Eric John.
Tarrant, Dorothy. A Community of Artists: Westport-Weston, 1900-1985. Connecticut: Westport-Weston Arts Council, 1985.
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