Seeing the City: Sloan’s New York, Delaware Art Museum

“The fun of being a New York painter,” John Sloan told Esquire in 1936, “even today, is that landmarks are torn down so rapidly that your canvases become historical records almost before the paint on them is dry.” Surely Sloan was being sardonic: chronicling the loss of the city’s history could not have been “fun.” But, in fact, he took the developments reshaping the city in stride. In this, he was the direct opposite of Henry James, who deplored the ethos of the skyscraper, describing it as the “huge, continuous fifty-floored conspiracy against the very idea of the ancient graces.” The ruthless impermanence of the city would always be central to Sloan’s New York art.

One of the most fascinating images in the catalog accompanying the show of Sloan’s work at the Delaware Art Museum (running through January 20) is a photograph that the artist took in 1927 from his Washington Square apartment: it shows the construction of One Fifth Avenue behind Washington Square Arch. In Sloan’s Wet Night, Washington Square (1928), the bold new high-rise building towers over the square with a seemingly smug remorselessness. Sloan’s rendering appears to be a clear protest—elegiac, unavailing—against the same sort of reckless development that robbed James of his birthplace at 21 Washington Place, a large block house off the square near Greene Street. And yet Sloan welcomed One Fifth Avenue. As the curators of the Sloan show note, the painter did not share Edmund Wilson’s view that the object of this new development was “to crush, in Washington Arch and now in the row of red facades behind it, whatever they possessed of impressiveness and magnificence.” For Sloan, the new buildings were grist for his artistic mill. Even when New York University took over 53 Washington Square South, the old Judson Hotel, where he had an apartment on the fourth floor, Sloan decamped willingly enough to a studio apartment atop the Chelsea Hotel, where he would live until his death.

John Sloan Manuscript Collection, Delaware Art MuseumOne Fifth Avenue under Construction, 1927, Photograph, 2 1/2 x 3 1/2 inches
Delaware Art Museum, Gift of the John Sloan Memorial Foundation, 1997Wet Night, Washington Square, 1928, Oil on panel, 26 x 20 inches

Moving to the Chelsea Hotel was something of a homecoming, since it was at 165 West 23rd Street that Sloan lived (with his wife Dolly) when he created most of his greatest New York paintings. Edith Wharton was born two blocks to the east, near Fifth Avenue, in 1862, when the street was still fashionably residential. By the time Sloan moved there from Philadelphia in 1904, it was lined with shops and dominated by the Flatiron Building, which the English Pre-Raphaelite painter Burne Jones described as “one vast horror, facing Madison Square . . . distinctly responsible for a new form of hurricane, which meets unsuspecting pedestrians as they reach the corner.” Sloan captured one of these “hurricanes” in Dust Storm, Fifth Avenue (1906), giving his Madison Square neighborhood a dreamlike quality reminiscent of Giorgione. In real life, it was bustling, socially eclectic, and noisy (one could hear the Sixth Avenue El from Sloan’s fifth-floor walk-up), the perfect base for an artist who wanted to paint Whitman’s “life immense in passion, pulse and power.”

“It is only by walking on foot through all corners at all hours that cities can be really studied to good purpose,” the English historian Thomas Macaulay once observed. The diary Sloan kept from 1906 to 1913 records the wide-ranging attentiveness of his own perambulations. “Walked through the interesting streets of the East Side,” he records in one entry. “Healthy-faced children, solid-legged, rich full color to their hair. Happiness rather than misery in the whole picture.” In another entry, he writes: “A fire in the afternoon at 25th Street and 10th Avenue. . . . Boys thronging, the hook and ladder wagon, smoke, hot sun and all sorts of people.” In another, “Dolly and I took a walk after dinner dishes were done, ending up on 8th Avenue, which is very interesting and different. The avenue life is different in each case. Sixth, tenderloin, fast. Eighth, neat lower class, honest. Third, poor, foreign. Each has its individual character.”

Sloan’s work delighted in the ordinary at a time when many spurned the ordinary as infra dig. But after exhibiting at Macbeth Galleries in 1908 with other like-minded artists, Sloan wound up consigned to the “Ashcan School,” a label which has always stinted his considerable, if uneven, achievement. By focusing on his New York paintings, rather than on his later nudes and landscapes, which are of dubious distinction, the Delaware show captures his true achievement.

Sloan’s influences were few but deep-rooted. One contemporary critic astutely noted his kinship with Manet. Certainly Sloan shared the French painter’s fondness for chiaroscuro, which both inherited from Velazquez. The passionate realist Robert Henri was another key influence, as were Daumier and Pissarro. However, it was from such preeminently urban writers as Balzac, Zola, and Whitman that he drew most inspiration. What contemporaries could not have seen was how much Sloan had in common with James Joyce. Both were gregarious, convivial men fascinated with cities, with topography, and with the humdrum details of life that many artists disdain. For both, 1904 proved pivotal: for Sloan, because it was the year in which he arrived in New York; and for Joyce, because it was the year in which he met his wife Nora Barnacle and in which he set Ulysses (1922). Sloan also illustrated a deluxe edition of the novels of the Parisian Paul de Kock, whose lubricious potboilers Joyce’s Molly Bloom enjoys in bed. Katherine Manthorne engagingly elaborates on these parallels in her essay, “John Sloan, Moving Pictures, and Celtic Spirits,” which appears in the show’s catalog, published by Yale University Press.

If English painter Walter Sickert saw the essence of Edwardian London in its music halls, Sloan saw the epitome of modern Manhattan in its elevated railroad. In Six O’Clock, Winter (1912), he shows a throng of pedestrians coming and going beside the headlong trajectory of the El. Here the time is dusk when the sharp sea-light of the city has faded, night is beginning to obscure the intent, inscrutable faces that animate the crowd and Sloan sets before us the majesty of New York in all its transience. Much is made of Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed—the Great Western Railway (1844) as the herald of Impressionism. But Sloan’s picture, responding to Turner’s with reaffirming humanity, has not received the attention it deserves. He did many other paintings of the El—Sixth Avenue Elevated at Third Street (1928) in the Whitney is probably the best known—but this earlier painting has a brooding power absent from the others.

The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.Six O'Clock, Winter, 1912, Oil on canvas, 26 1/8 x 32 inches, Acquired 1922

After the famous Armory show in 1913, which introduced such new talents as Duchamp and Picabia, Modernism became the new orthodoxy, and Sloan came to be seen as increasingly outmoded, too traditional. Yet as John Loughery recounts in his excellent biography, John Sloan: Painter and Rebel, the veteran painter would often excoriate his juniors for their ignorance of tradition: “Art education in most colleges, as far as he could tell, taught the ‘lingo’ but nothing of the soul and reality of art-making. The younger critics formed a ‘totalitarian authority’ as bad as the cadre of reactionary critics of their parents’ time.” Students should study the best of Modernism—for Sloan, that meant Renoir, Van Gogh, and Cezanne—to develop their own work, and shun the trendy imitations of art that too often passed for the real thing. From rostrums around the city, as well as at the Art Students League, where he taught painting, Sloan never feared to speak his mind. As Loughery puts it, Sloan believed that “Surrealism was a shallow fad, Dada a one-line joke, and the emerging school of Abstract Expressionism a frightening rejection of the humanity of art.”

No one who reads Sloan’s diaries can doubt the artist’s own humanity. In one entry, he records, “While out for papers, I stopped on Fifth Avenue and stood for nearly an hour watching the Easter dressed throngs coming from their honorable Easter services—very funny humans. I didn’t feel at all one of them, just then. But after all, I turned down a poor rum soaked bum who asked me for money—and regretted it and slunk home feeling below cost.” This was no holiday remorse on Sloan’s part. His wife Dolly was a confirmed drunkard, a source of continual embarrassment. Yet he remained fiercely loyal to her, recognizing the goodness in her. Proof that the humanity of the man did not elude the artist appears in The Wake of the Ferry No. 2 (1907), which shows the back of a woman riding a ferry on a cold, fogbound day. Compared with the forlorn back of this forlorn figure, the beguiling backs of Antoine Watteau’s ladies might be from a different universe. Sloan’s heartrending painting drew on the sorrow he felt whenever his wife returned to Philadelphia, where she often drank herself into a bedraggled stupor.

The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.The Wake of the Ferry No. 2, 1907, Oil on canvas, 26 x 32 inches, Acquired 1922

In this and other scenes, Sloan choreographed his own history of the city, culled from what James called the “great intricate frenzied dance, half merry, half desperate . . . performed on the huge watery floor.” By preserving moments of personal history, Sloan’s art preserved something of the indomitable life of the city. The Delaware Art Museum has done a splendid job of gathering them together for its excellent exhibition.


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