Sloan's New York morphs from intimate scenes to cityscapes

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John Sloan and Helen Farr Sloan, his much younger second wife, wrote "the most passionate love letters that I've ever read," museum director and chief executive officer Judith O'Toole told an audience recently at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art.

The Greensburg museum's exhibition "Seeing the City: Sloan's New York" owes its existence as much to the passion of that relationship as it does to the ardor with which the noted Ashcan School artist painted his adopted city in the early 20th century.

The more than 100 paintings, etchings, drawings, photographs and illustrated letters, many of which were protected under Helen's stewardship, present a fascinating look at Sloan (1871-1951), who was born in rural Pennsylvania, grew up in Philadelphia, and permanently moved to New York in 1904.

The secondary story is that of the devotion of a former student whose diligence ensured that Sloan's legacy would endure.

Sloan studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, and began his professional career as a reporter/illustrator for The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1892. In Philadelphia, he enjoyed the company of the charismatic and noted artist Robert Henri, as well as fellow newspaper illustrators, many of whom -- such as William Glackens, George Luks and Everett Shinn -- would also be designated Ashcan School artists.

Within a few years, Sloan's friends began moving to New York, lured by its more dynamic art community and market. Sloan was the last to leave Philadelphia, and then only because photography and advanced printing technology had severely reduced the numbers of illustrators employed by newspapers.

In 1901, he'd married Anna "Dolly" Wall, a bookkeeper who was an alcoholic. The couple moved from Midtown Manhattan to Chelsea and Greenwich Village, spending their final years in the Chelsea Hotel.


If you go ...
  • Where: Westmoreland Museum of American Art, 221 N. Main St., Greensburg.
  • When: Through April 27.
  • Events: Lecture: 7 p.m. Thursday, "John Sloan: Searching the City," by Bennard Perlman, preeminent Ashcan School authority. A Carnegie Tech grad, Perlman was a classmate of Andy Warhol and Philip Pearlstein. Brown Bag Lecture noon March 19, "Everlasting Architecture," by historian and archivist Frank Kurtik, comparing architecture Sloan depicted with that concurrently erected in Western Pennsylvania (both free).
  • Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays and until 9 p.m. Thursdays.
  • Admission: $5 suggested donation, children under 12 and students free.
  • Catalog: "John Sloan's New York," 208 pages, is informative and thoughtful, color-illustrated, with chronology and five scholarly essays that address such topics as the influence of the cinema upon Sloan's art, his flirtation with socialism and relationship with Robert Henri (soft cover, $40).
  • Interactive Web site: By the Delaware Art Museum at www.john sloansnewyork.org.
  • Information: 724-837-1500 or www.wmuseumaa.org.

Sloan's subject matter was close to home, and he is never more enticing than when he places the viewer at the portal of a street scene, a step away from joining him on the almost-daily walks he took to observe and sketch.

The viewer is positioned, for example, to look over the shoulders of the hatted women peering into a "Picture Shop Window" in the evening, a pastime becoming popular due to the widespread use of electric lights in windows and on the streets. Or, more daringly, the viewer might follow the white-dressed women through the doorway of "The Haymarket," a dance hall known as an underworld hangout where a range of feminine favors could be purchased.

One becomes part of the crowd in the "Hairdresser's Window," watching the portly, bleached blond beautician who stands in front of an open second-story window as she colors the hair of her customer. Swatches of variously colored hair, hung on a line outside the window, add to the slightly forbidden quality of the endeavor.

The proximity of apartments, their windows thrown open in the summer to catch any glimmer of a breeze, provided more intimate views into New Yorkers' lives, a visual banquet for Sloan. This opportunity for voyeurism inspired, presumably, such works as "Three A.M.," with two scantily draped (for the time) women in their kitchen, one at the stove smoking.

"Turning out the Light," an etching from the 1905 series "New York City Life," is of a woman kneeling on a bed who turns toward her male companion as she reaches for the lamp.

Sloan excelled at etchings, which reflected his journalism background in their crisp lines and succinctly presented narrative.

Not all of his images of personal space are suggestive. One of the most rapturous paintings exhibited is "Red Kimono on the Roof," the title referring to the brilliant wrap a woman wears as she hangs clothes, wooden clothespins in her mouth. The vertical composition, then unusual for Sloan, reflects what historian Thomas Bender deemed a general "perceptual shift" in the way New York was seen, from horizontal to vertical, that occurred between 1909 and 1915.

Later, Sloan would paint expansive cityscapes, their grandeur coming from the scope of buildings represented rather than of individuals. By 1928, he'd almost ceased painting New York, instead focusing on the nude figure.

Love and Pittsburgh

Helen Farr was a student of Sloan's at the Art Students League, where he'd begun teaching in 1916. She took such complete notes in his classes that in 1939 they were published, in collaboration with Sloan, as the "Gist of Art," a book still in use by students.

The year after Dolly's death in 1943, Farr traveled to Santa Fe, N.M. (where the Sloans had begun to summer in 1919), to visit Sloan, and they married rather abruptly.

After his death, Helen returned to teaching while looking after the viability of her late husband's reputation. A query in 1960 from the director of the Delaware Art Museum was the beginning of a relationship that led to her giving the Wilmington museum Sloan's library and archival materials, along with papers related to others in his circle. The museum also holds the largest collection of Sloan's art in the world.

It is from this archival material that the new research reflected in "Seeing the City" came. The catalog is dedicated to Helen, who died in 2005, before the exhibition was realized.

There is a Pittsburgh connection to this New York story.

Sloan's 1905 painting "The Coffee Line," lent to the exhibition by Carnegie Museum of Art, was shown in the Eighth International of the Carnegie Institute, where it received honorable mention. Sloan was an International juror in 1924.

In the fall of 1907, Sloan was invited to teach at the Pittsburgh Art Students League. While here he captured, in crayon and watercolor, a boy climbing the railing of one of the city's fabled step lanes, the houses of workers far below and the smoky mills in the distance. The Westmoreland recently purchased "Pittsburg," and it is included in the exhibition at this venue only.

While the industrial scene is quite different from the society Sloan depicted in New York, the subject is consistent with his role as observer of the urban environment and of the lives of the workers who move within it.


Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas may be reached at mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.


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