“For John Sloan, an illustrator and artist with sympathy for the common man (and woman), New York was the ideal place to be in the early twentieth century,” writes Joyce K. Schiller and Heather Campbell Coyle in John Sloan’s New York, the catalogue to the Delaware Art Museum’s exhibition Seeing the City: Sloan’s New York. After moving from his native Philadelphia to New York in April 1904, Sloan soon oriented himself to his new surroundings, walking through the streets and observing the people and buildings that made up the bustling metropolis. In works such as The City from Greenwich Village (above), Sloan shows the gritty realism indicative of the Ashcan School and the influence of his friend and mentor Robert Henri. In this new study of Sloan’s art in the context of his urban explorations, we discover an artist fully engaged with his environment, taking the dynamics of the new social structures of the giant city and capturing them upon the confines of his canvases.
John Sloan (1871–1951), Picture Shop Window, 1907-08; Oil on canvas, 32 x 25 1/8 inches; Collection of the Newark Museum, Gift of Mrs. Felix Fuld, 1925; #25.1163
Sloan’s pictures often place the viewer in the heart of the scene, as if you were right there on the sidewalk, window shopping like the young women in Picture Shop Window (above). “Placing viewers of his New York pictures on street level, Sloan established a unique view of the city that focused on individuals and their own places within the modernizing city,” Molly S. Hutton writes in her essay, “Walking the City at the Turn of the Century: John Sloan’s Pedestrian Aesthetics.” Such focus on the individual perhaps represents on some level Sloan’s Socialist leanings, having joined the Socialist party in 1910 and even allowing his name to be placed on the ballot for the New York State Assembly. In their essay, “John Sloan’s Urban Encounters,” Schiller and Coyle show how Sloan’s Socialism is subtler in the paintings than in his illustration work, especially the illustrations done for the Socialist magazine The Masses. The only Socialist “commentary” Sloan allows himself in his oils is the occasional unsympathetic portrayals of the wealthier classes, especially in comparison to his empathetic views of the lower classes going about their daily lives, such as the ladies of Picture Shop Window.
John Sloan (1871–1951), The Carmine Street Theater, 1912; Oil on canvas, 26 x 31 ¾ inches; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Gift of the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Foundation, 1966. Photography by Lee Stalsworth.
Hutton develops the idea of a “pedestrian aesthetic” behind Sloan’s work, showing how he and the other Ashcan artists new to New York felt an epistemological need to “map” the city and somehow own it imaginatively. Sloan’s pedestrian perspective allows him to impose order on not only the people around him but the streets themselves, “without the overt political and hierarchical implications associated with a bird’s-eye view,” Hutton believes, calling Sloan a flaneur, ala Charles Baudelaire’s description of an artist taking to the streets to become “one flesh with the crowd.” The flaneur, however, remains part voyeur—part of the crowd, yet still a distanced observer. Whereas the voyeur sees while remaining unseen, the flaneur “hides” in plain sight within the anonymity of the masses. This insight allows us not only to see the complex psychology involved in works such as The Carmine Street Theater (above), but also sheds light on Edward Hopper, another painter of the New York scene and student of Henri. Hopper plays more of the role of the voyeur, removing the human figure from many of his street scenes in his own desire to remain unseen, whereas Sloan remains confident in his flaneur “disguise” to protect him from discovery, allowing his subjects to “see” him as he observes them.
John Sloan (1871–1951), Red Kimono on the Roof, 1912; Oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches; Indianapolis Museum of Art, James E. Roberts Fund, 54.55
Sloan lived in several locations in New York City, but spent most of his time after 1912 living in Greenwich Village, just then developing into a haven for bohemian artists. “Even more than the rest of the city,” Schiller and Coyle write, “the Village represented a place outside the bounds of ordinary social controls.” Sloan’s Red Kimono on the Roof (above) captures one of these bohemians going about their daily chores yet injecting an exotic, colorful note into that existence. Again, like Hopper, Sloan reproduces a real-life aspect of urban existence. Unlike Hopper, however, Sloan individualizes that figure through the detail of the kimono, an aspect usually missing from Hopper’s almost interchangeable figures. The striking similarities between figures in Hopper’s and Sloan’s paintings makes Sloan's efforts at uniqueness even more noticeable.
John Sloan (1871–1951), Three A. M., 1909; Oil on canvas, 32 x 26 ¼ inches; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Gift of Mrs. Cyrus McCormick, 1946, #46-10.1
In “John Sloan, Moving Pictures, and Celtic Spirits,” Katherine E. Manthorne delves into Sloan’s use of the early cinema in his works. Upon arriving in New York, Sloan found himself “fascinated by the down-to-earth, open sexuality of the young working-class women,” symbolized best by the nude 20-foot-high statue of Diana placed upon the top of the original Madison Square Garden, which drew stares from passersby. (Diana now stands atop the great staircase of the PMA, still drawing plenty of attention.) Mass media, especially the movies, helps “propel” this idea of the “New Woman” along with the general idea of “the city that never sleeps.” The films of D.W. Griffith “conduct[ing] substantive examinations of the urban immigrant and working-class poor,” combined with Sloan’s own Socialism, lead to works such as Three A. M. (above), which looks upon working-class conditions empathetically and without judgment. In such paintings, Sloan gets in touch with his Irish ancestry, a reunion encouraged by his friendship with John Butler Yeats, the painter-philosopher patriarch of the clan of both the poet William Butler Yeats and the painter Jack Butler Yeats. Manthorne later parallels Sloan’s realistic vision of the New York streets with James Joyce’s realistic portrayal of Dublin in Ulysses, raising Sloan’s work from the label of “just” realism and adding modernist overtones through the evocation of Joyce. Again, the parallels with Hopper seem significant. Hopper also loved the cinema, leading to the magnificent New York Movie. Hopper’s cinematic turn, however, examines introspection in the person of the usherette, whereas Sloan’s cinematic side involves the audience itself, the community of viewers. Sloan’s Irishness and, hence, European modernism parallel Hopper’s forgotten Francophilia, which the catalogue to the current Edward Hopper exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC brought back into the spotlight. (My review of the Edward Hopper catalogue is here.)
Letter, John Sloan to Robert Henri, November 13, 1912; Ink on paper, 10 x 8 inches; John Sloan Manuscript Collection, Delaware Art Museum
Perhaps the most eye-opening essay of the collection, “Best Friends Forever? John Sloan, Robert Henri, and the Problem of Memory,” by Alexis L. Boylan, calls into question the long-worn narrative of the Ashcan School and specifically the relationship of Sloan and Henri. Armed with the question “What part of this art historical retelling of Sloan’s career is reality, and what part is memory or invention?” Boylan dives headfirst into the Delaware Art Museum’s John Sloan Manuscript Collection (donated in 1978 by Helen Farr Sloan, his second wife) and resurfaces with some surprising answers. Looking at the correspondence, many of which included humorous drawings (such as the letter above), Boylan finds an “interdependence” between the men that suggests a partnership of equals. “Sloan in certain moments appears needy,” Boylan concludes, “but Henri is equally keen to remain a physical and emotional presence in Sloan’s life.” When Henri’s wife dies in 1905, he relies heavily on Sloan and his wife for support. A series of self-portraits by Henri in letters and postcards (one of which calls out “Why hello John!”) testify to Henri’s affection and need to be “present” (even if only through a drawing) with the Sloans. After Henri’s death in 1929, however, Sloan begins the process of separating from Henri, emphasizing Henri’s inspirational power over his artistic skills. Sloan’s 1939 book Gist of Art downplays Henri’s influence in an attempt to “contain” his onetime friend and prove himself his own man. By the late 1940s, Sloan campaign for independence leads him to say, “I have never felt really close to him, he was the master and I the pupil.” Sloan’s campaign proves too effective over time, resulting in an eclipsing of his reputation by that of Henri, who becomes the "leader" of the Ashcan school in conventional art historical storylines. Boylan’s essay serves as a valuable cautionary tale about the perils of convenient labels such as “schools” and their requisite “leaders.”
John Sloan (1871–1951), Rainbow, New York City, 1913; Oil on canvas, 20 x 24 inches; Cheekwood Museum of Art
In presenting Seeing the City: Sloan’s New York, the Delaware Art Museum reminds the world at large that they own the largest collection of the art of John Sloan in the world and are the mecca for any researchers seeking to know the artist. As with the exhibit celebrating the return of their Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Collection of Pre-Raphaelite Art earlier this year (my review here), the Delaware Art Museum announces to the world that, despite coming from a small state, they’re a very large institution in terms of importance. This exhibition, especially coming in the wake of the Hopper retrospective at the National Gallery of Art, reminds the art world that John Sloan deserves consideration with the acknowledged giants of American art. The questions raised by the catalogue (especially those raised by Boylan) and by the exhibit should spur a renewed interest in answers regarding the artistry of John Sloan.
[Many thanks to the Delaware Art Museum for providing me with a review copy of John Sloan’s New York and for the images from the exhibition Seeing the City: Sloan’s New York.]