Skip to main content

Feature

The Passing City

By Susan Saccoccia | HUMANITIES, September/October 2007 | Volume 28, Number 5

AS ITS BILLING SUGGESTS, TWO STORIES UNFOLD IN “Seeing the City: Sloan’s New York,” an exhibition opening in October at the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington. The works on display chronicle the evolution of the painter John Sloan as well as the transformation of the city that inspired him.

Art and life were one during Sloan's first two decades in New York, when the city was moving out of the nineteenth century and becoming a commercial and cultural capital. As the New York that Sloan experienced changed, so did his art—and his life.

The exhibition of approximately one hundred works begins in 1904 when the thirty-two-year old artist and his wife Dolly arrive in New York. Sloan was among a group of news illustrators who left Philadelphia to join their mentor, Robert Henri. An artist and charismatic teacher, Henri urged his protégés to depict the real world rather than idealized scenes.

Sloan took Henri's advice to heart. He had read Walt Whitman and shared the poet's desire to celebrate the experience of ordinary Americans. After his first meeting with Henri, Sloan gave him a copy of Whitman's Leaves of Grass.

While their contemporaries Alfred Steiglitz and his circle were creating semiabstract renderings of the city's skyscrapers, Sloan and his group kept their eye on street-level life.

By depicting the daily realities of the city, they became known as the “Ashcan School,” a title that implies the group was preoccupied with gritty urban scenes. The name is misleading, notes Delaware Art Museum curator Joyce K. Schiller, who, with the museum's associate curator, Heather Campbell Coyle, developed the exhibition and its catalog, John Sloan's New York.

“Sloan paints the city around him—middle class Chelsea and bohemian Greenwich Village,” says Schiller. “There are ash cans. But he is not painting the rough underbelly of life.”

Unlike his friends, Sloan had little talent for the quick news image. Instead, he excelled at illustrating stories, a gift that helped him make his way in his adopted home. “Using his art,” says Coyle, “he got to know the city as a local, and became a New Yorker.”

Settling in Chelsea, Sloan carved his niche with etching plates. Between 1905 and 1906, he created his New York City Life series of prints. The Art Nouveau polish of his book illustrations gave way to a looser, more expressive style suited to the liveliness of his subject, the daily life in his neighborhood.

Chelsea was bursting with shops, moving-picture parlors, art galleries, and penny arcades. It was a crossroads drawing haughty matrons, prostitutes, street urchins, immigrant families, and young working women—the leading ladies in most of Sloan's prints and paintings.

Many of these people were, like him, newcomers. Sloan had an eye for the comedy in encounters among strangers as they appraised each other or took in the city's enticements, from storefront displays of hats, paintings, and jewelry to outdoor Shakespeare performances and nickelodeons.

Sloan's set of ten City Life etchings is a cavalcade of such scenes. In Fun, One Cent, 1905, giggling girls huddle around a penny arcade promising a glimpse at a "Naughty Girl." In The Show Case, 1905, passersby gaze at the vast corset on display. In Roofs, Summer Night, 1906, families are sleeping on a tenement roof to escape the heat, but one man is awake, eyeing the women nearby. Connoisseurs of Prints, 1906, caricatures an assortment of nouveau riche art buyers as they imperiously survey a gallery show.

His painting style loosened too. The smooth brushstrokes of Sloan's Philadelphia scenes reflect the neoclassical calm of that city's public settings. The quick jabs of pigment in his New York paintings suggest the cacophony of Manhattan.

Yet Sloan's images almost always convey enough detail to capture the particulars of a building or a face that he singles out in a crowd. By focusing on an individual or including a familiar landmark, Sloan finds his footing in a raucous city.

Even in a dark, crowded setting, an individual stands out. In Picture Shop Window, 1907-8, a woman gazes at the art in a gallery window, the red feather in her hat drawing attention to her profile, aglow in the light from the display.

Sloan rendered landmarks such as the Flatiron Building and elevated railways as backdrops for human interactions. He alone of his “gang of newspapermen” lingers over an individual in a teeming scene. His subjects retain their individuality rather than dissolving in a blur of activity. They are embedded, not overwhelmed, in their urban settings.

Time and again, Sloan employs the device of a picture within a picture, framing his subjects in a window or doorway, and catching them in the act of reacting to an impromptu sidewalk spectacle—or each other.

Sloan's knack for street theater reaches operatic heights in his painting Hairdresser's Window, 1907. The sturdy Madame Malcomb, an intentional pun by Sloan, treats the tresses of her client, who resembles a captive Rapunzel, while an audience gathers below as if they are watching a movie.

Sloan conjures a kaleidoscopic slice of Chelsea life into a single scene. No stranger to abstraction, he accents the playful geometry in the building's jumble of signs and windows and the ovals of onlookers' hats. The gilded lettering that identifies the bridal shop contrasts with Madame Malcomb's scribbled list of services and the simple sign over a basement chop suey eatery. Window mannequins gaze back at the spectators and an elegant lady glides by, oblivious to the commotion.

In her catalog essay, Molly S. Hutton examines the “pedestrian aesthetic” of Sloan, who, in the tradition of the Parisian flâneur, attentively strolls the city to experience it.

Although Sloan did not travel with an easel or sketchpad, his studio was the street. He did part of his picture-making on foot, taking notes on his walks and then, back home, turned his observations into etchings or paintings.

Sloan's ability to distinguish buildings as well as people with a few brush strokes helped the curators identify the sites that inspired his images. A kiosk at the exhibition enables a viewer to locate the setting of a painting or print and also view related works, film clips, or excerpts from the diary Sloan kept from 1906 to 1913.

Although each took his own path as an artist, Sloan and his “gang”—Arthur Davies, William Glackens, Ernest Lawson, George Luks, Maurice Prendergast, and Everett Shinn—shared modernist ideals and allegiance to Henri. When the National Academy of Design rejected their submissions to its 1907 spring exhibition, they staged their own exhibition.

Led by Henri and Sloan, who were adept at self-promotion, “The Eight” sent press releases to their old newspapers. Their rebellion made headlines months before the February 3, 1908, opening of the show, which drew big crowds. A critic singled out Sloan's Hairdresser's Window as an example of the “vulgarity” that “smites one in the face at this exhibition.” Their pioneering showcase of homegrown modernism then traveled nationwide, years ahead of the Eurocentric 1913 Armory Show.

Sloan gradually came to feel at home in the city, a change that is visible in his art.

In 1909, he met the Irish philosopher and painter John Butler Yeats, the father of painter Jack Butler Yeats and poet William Butler Yeats. Their friendship helped the two outsiders become insiders. Yeats became a surrogate father to the Sloans and encouraged his friend, who had yet to sell a painting. Yeats wrote an essay in Harper's Weekly praising Sloan's skill with chiaroscuro and describing him as an artist “who, while looking everywhere for visions of tenderness and beauty, refuses to shut his eyes to the facts.”

Years later, Sloan said, “Henri, in the formative period, and J. B. Yeats later, were the two great influences of my life.”

With Yeats at his side, Sloan extended his excursions beyond Chelsea. One day, the pair ventured north to the Columbia Green for a Shakespeare performance. Sloan's painting The Coburn Players, 1910, recalls the outing. As in other Sloan images, the light illuminating a spectacle—in this case, the actors on stage—highlights a viewer in an otherwise darkened setting. Here, Sloan singles out a woman in a red dress seated in the back row.

Sloan and Yeats shared an enthusiasm for modern entertainments, including early motion pictures. Suggesting that movies helped Sloan hone his technique, catalog contributor Katherine E. Manthorne describes Sloan as a “flâneur, updated to post-1900 standards of electricity and technology.”

Sloan's painting Movies, 1913, is about the show on the sidewalk as well as the movie parlor. The sealed-up structure that Sloan depicted in The Carmine Street Theater, 1912, here bursts into life as a stage set for the pageant on the street: Children gawk, adults flirt, and a few patrons wander into the theater. One man slouches against the wall surveying the scene—perhaps a stand-in for Sloan.

Sloan's populist instincts drew him to socialism, and from 1912 to1916 he served on the editorial board of the Socialist magazine The Masses. The publication reproduced artworks with care and attracted renowned writers such as Sherwood Anderson and Carl Sandburg.

In 1912, Sloan moved to an apartment and studio in Greenwich Village, the center of the city's bohemian and artistic life. His letter to Henri announcing the move describes his eleventh-floor studio at 35 Sixth Avenue as the “largest house in Greenwich” and his nearby apartment as the smallest. He sketches himself leaning out of his studio window and peering through a telescope at Dolly, who waves a hanky at him from below.

Although Sloan earned his livelihood as an illustrator and a teacher at the Art Students League, in Self-Portrait in Gray Shirt, 1912, Sloan presents himself as a painter. The following year, Sloan made his first painting sales to Albert C. Barnes, a high school friend who became a renowned collector of contemporary art.

A spirit of community infuses Sloan's Village scenes, and he expands his repertoire of landmarks with hallowed locations that include the Jefferson Market, Washington Square, and McSorley's Old Ale House. In prints such as Girls Sliding,1915, people observe each other not with disdain, but instead with neighborly pleasure.

In his print The Return from Toil,1915, high-spirited young women promenade arm in arm, their workday done. The exuberant troupe resembles a line of chorus girls. Sloan casts them as stars of their city.

Sloan's images of the good life in the Village reach an apotheosis with his print Arch Conspirators, 1917. A group is picnicking on top of the Washington Square Arch, where they have just declared the independence of the Village from the United States. In this tableau of bohemian bonhomie, a pipe-smoking Sloan stands across from avant-garde artist Marcel Duchamp.

Unlike his companions, Duchamp was a genuine revolutionary. That year, the Society of Independent Artists rejected his iconoclastic submission to its exhibition—a freshly manufactured urinal. In protest, Duchamp resigned from the society and went on to do much that changed the course of twentieth-century art.

Meanwhile, Sloan's career was on the ascent. In 1918, he became the society's president, a post he would hold for twenty-six years. The following year, he and Dolly visited Santa Fe, where they bought a second home.

At the same time, the city that had been Sloan's muse was entering a new era. A trio of paintings charts its transformation.

Jefferson Market, 1917/22, depicts an iconic Village scene with a vintage glow. Old and new worlds coexist in The City from Greenwich Village, 1922. In the foreground is one of the landmarks that ground many Sloan paintings, the Sixth Avenue El, a structure that would soon disappear. On the horizon, the spires of Wall Street rise like a distant Oz.

In1927, the Sloans had to vacate their building, which was in the path of the new subway. They moved into a large apartment and studio on Washington Square South. “Once more, Sloan finds a place that he loves,” says Schiller. “But 1927 is a pivotal year for him. His building is razed so that the city can change. He is watching New York become a twentieth-century city.”

The new world replaces the old in Sloan's painting Wet Night, Washington Square, 1928. Bereft of the human energy that animates his earlier work, the image is a long view of the Arch and behind it, the Village's first skyscraper.

In 1935, New York University took over the Sloans' building. No longer able to afford the Village, the couple moved into an apartment in the Hotel Chelsea, where Sloan painted studio nudes and Santa Fe scenes. A few blocks from his old neighborhood, he was again living like an outsider in New York.

Susan Saccoccia is a writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington received $40,000 in NEH funding for “Seeing the City: Sloan’s New York,” which is on view October 20 through January 20, 2008. The exhibition will appear at Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg, Pennsylvania, February 10 to April 27; the Smart Museum of Art in Chicago, May 22 to September 14; and the Reynolda House Museum of American Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, October 4 to January 4, 2009.