By Darla McCammon
Abastemia St. Leger Eberle, an Ash Can artist, was born on April 6, 1878, in the small town of Webster City, Iowa.
One of the few females recognized in the Ash Can realist movement, her early life consisted of studying to become a musician like her mother. The family moved often due to her father’s duties in the U.S. Army as a doctor. The cello was Eberle’s chosen occupation but on the side, she dabbled in art sculpture. Her father was so caught by the excellent clay mask she sculpted one day that he made a connection for her with one of his patients, who worked in clay and sculpted busts. This led to her working in modeling wax and determining that she preferred sculpture over the cello for her life’s work.
She continued to receive lessons from this patient and struggled to find sculptured subjects to use as models for study. She resorted to copying tombstones and any kind of sculpture she could find in Caton, Ohio. Desperate to receive more training, she found students to fill a class and enticed professional sculptor Frank Vogan to come to Canton to teach it. Her abilities developed in the next two years as she was able to continue study with Vogan. When she was 21, she achieved her dream and was accepted and enrolled at the Art Students League in New York City, where she began training under George Barnard.
She took a break from her studies under Barnard when her parents were relocated by the army to Puerto Rico. She visited them and became interested in the everyday life of the citizens there. She remained busy, sketching as many of the locals in their everyday pursuits as possible. Later, her sculpture “Puerto Rican Mother and Child” would receive prizes in tuition and scholarships and also accrued much recognition. Barnard, her instructor, would even leave her in charge of his class on occasion as she began gaining success.
Eberle had a heart for lower-class immigrants and those in the less wealthy streets of New York City. She created many small bronze creations and was elected to the National Sculpture Society; then, a few years later, she was elected to the National Academy of Design. She traveled to Naples, Italy, where much of her finished work was cast in bronze. In 1913, her now-famous work titled “The White Slave” created a furor at the Armory Show in New York both because of the topic it portrayed (child prostitution) and the fact the young girl was being auctioned in the nude. The realism was too much for many who visited the Armory Show.
But realism is what made one an Ash Can artist and Eberle continued to portray the realism of that part of New York, though most of her other works did not equal the same outcry of “The White Slave.” Her “Windy Day” for instance shows us a more common activity of living in poverty. Eberle moved her studio right into the middle of her subjects and from that tenement set up a playroom where children could come and enjoy toys and gifts while she worked at duplicating them in her sculptures. She was not financially successful but left behind wonderful pieces that are enjoyed today and would have provided her a luxury lifestyle had then been more recognized during those eventful years.
Eberly’s photography is best described in her own words: “The children of the East Side play without restraint, their griefs and their joys are expressed with absolute abandon … they are real — real as they can be. They express life.”