Like Edison, Muybridge craved respectability; he used his horse studies to publicly ridicule the decidedly more romantic way that well-known painters of the day like Rosa Bonheur had attempted to envision and depict animal movement. But Muybridge’s studies were often doctored to exaggerate the effect. Further, his penchant for parading nude men and women in front of the camera as they danced, jumped, or balanced baskets on their heads smacked more of sublimated lust than science.

Nevertheless, in the late 1870s influential American artist and art educator Thomas Eakins followed Muybridge’s lead, incorporating motion photography in his teaching and his paintings. That meant abandoning most of the existing academic conventions for depicting human figures and animals. By championing cinematographic methods, he helped shunt aside a centuries-old visual culture dependent on received ideas about how to show action through stable poses.

Thomas Pollock Anshutz worked closely with Eakins at the time. His painting The Ironworker’s Noontime (1880) shows a similar quasi-­scientific analysis of living creatures—in this case, American factory workers. It’s a gathering of mostly shirtless men engaging in a variety of activities: One figure in the foreground massages a sore bicep; a pair of young boys appears to be horsing around to the left; to the right, men and boys pump water, wash up, and simply sit or stand looking exhausted.

Each figure and pose was studied and drawn separately, then combined into the final painting. This may not sound all that different from the method of any neoclassical French artist from the previous 100 years. But the individual figures are far from idealized types—the influence of photography on these bodies is clear. Yet somehow, the use of the photographs makes the scene appear less real, not more; the contrast between the deliberate arrangements in space and the naturalistic body types is jarring. Equally strange are the warm tones of their skin, which contrast sharply, almost too sharply, with their surroundings: the bleak coal gray of the ground, the black looming expanse of the building and smokestacks behind them, the sliver of smoke-filled pale sky in the upper right. All these elements would be trademarks of Ashcan School painters, who showed the bleakness and poverty of America’s cities in the early 1900s.

Noontime is nicely paired with Ninth Infantry Boys’ Morning Wash (1898). The figures in the film are also spread evenly and deliberately across the frame. But these figures move, bending to draw water from the basins on the ground, then looking directly into the camera for a moment, self-consciously aware of its presence. The motion in the film is slower than real-time, so as each soldier dries his face and hands, his white towel flutters surreally, tracing balletic motions. It’s a simple piece, but the slow motion, the ritual, and the nervous glances are all oddly discomfiting and artificial. Like Muybridge’s horses, these men have been transformed into something else: a new perfected version of themselves.

In fact, as the paintings in the show become more and more stark (if exaggerated) depictions of material facts—as in the work of George Bellows—the Edison films appear more staged and unrealistic. A comparison of the light sparring in Corbett and Courtney Before the Kinetograph (1894) with George Bellows’ Club Night (1907) is telling. In the Edison film, heavyweight champ Corbett gingerly swings at his opponent, moving with a strange, tentative gait, never really projecting violence or menace. In the Bellows painting, the face of the figure on the left is a swollen wreck, a few stabs of pulpy reddish paint against a black background, cowering behind his gloves. A Francis Baconnesque crowd eggs the fighters on; one man in the front row appears to be simply a gaping hole of a mouth and two eye sockets wearing a suit.

The most affecting pieces in the exhibition are the cityscapes, a favorite subject for Edison filmmakers and Ashcan painters alike. As Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand did in their film Manhatta, which appeared at the National Gallery last year, Wallace McCutcheon produced a film for the American Mutoscope and Biograph company in 1902, Lower Broadway, that depicts the city as it was: a mechanized, overcrowded spectacle. Trolleys and horses move from the bottom left corner to the center along a sharp diagonal; competing, seemingly unending tides of human traffic pick their way through the right side of the picture. Row after row of tall buildings recedes into the upper right corner, into a haze of white smoke. The crowds appear to be circulated and processed by a giant transit machine, generating a sort of terrible rhythmic beauty.

In painter John Sloan’s hands, this jostling, crowding, and mechanization is thrilling, and his painting Six O’Clock, Winter (1912) is one of the show’s real treats. A dark elevated train traces a diagonal from lower left to upper right, bisecting a rich cobalt and yellow-green sky above and a swarm of people below, all viewed from the neck up. Men loading and unloading trucks and riding trolleys appear to crowd-surf, borne over the heads of the throng of glowing faces.

Count on Bellows to reveal the potential of such scenes for dehumanization. In New York (1911) he fills the lower fifth of the canvas with stooped, faceless figures, most of which are cut off at the knees by the bottom edge of the picture. Behind them the city rises in big blocks of dirty colors, with rectangular windows and barely legible advertisements encrusted on their surfaces. Drearier still is Pennsylvania Station Excavation (1909). The giant crater it depicts looks like the site of an unimaginable cataclysm; four tiny figures in the lower right are indicated by simple black apostrophes with dots of saturated red for faces. Aside from a bit of blue and some orange-yellow highlights in the clouds from the setting sun, the painting is all gray and black; ghostly marks that might be distant figures dot the interior of the crater, and black clouds of smoke rise from distant silhouetted smokestacks. Bellows makes us feel the shock of the new, and, though he may be a tad dramatic, it’s a powerful, affecting, starkly minimal image.

Bellows, Sloan, and McCutcheon, gathered together in the last room of the exhibition, show the rapid acceleration of human life in the modern age, and an American city radically remaking itself. But McCutcheon’s film portrait of the city is more fully a part of that process—not merely reflecting the transformation but also helping to drive it. With the advent of film, ideas of movement, likeness, and recording and remembering reality were all suddenly up in the air. Realist painters could either take Eakins’ route and adopt the new methods and standards, or, like Bellows, they could register the fallout.

The difference between then and now is the extent to which this transformation had the power to fascinate audiences. Popular film, of course, wouldn’t continue to occupy this odd territory in the nation’s consciousness. Then, it was part pseudo-science, part sideshow attraction, part triumphalist modern propaganda. Film conditioned its audiences, irrevocably changing the way they saw and knew the world. Moving Pictures helps us recapture a sense of what we’ve lost.