Museum of Art

Fort Lauderdale, FL



The Gist of Drawings: Works on Paper by John Sloan

October 6 - December 3, 2000


John Sloan was born in 1871 in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, but his family moved to the city when he was five. Forced to support his family when he reached the age of sixteen, Sloan worked in a book and print seller's shop where he taught himself the fundamentals of drawing and etching. By the 1890s, he was working as an illustrator for the Philadelphia Inquirer and other publications, for which he produced beautiful and stylish images reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley and French Art Nouveau poster artists. Meanwhile, he continued to develop his skills as a draughtsman by undertaking evening study, first at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and later at the Charcoal Club, a dissident group that he helped form in tandem with the charismatic teacher, Robert Henri, who became a friend and a powerful influence on his career. (Self-Portrait, 1946, crayon and gouache on board, 20 x 16 inches, Deleware Art Collection, 85-90)

William B. Scott and Peter M. Rutkoff write in chapter one of their book New York Modern, The Arts and the City, that the Charcoal Club was "an art cooperative formed by John Sloan to provide artists live models without the expense of academy tuition. Henri assumed leadership of the Charcoal Club and gathered a nucleus of students who included, besides Sloan, Everett Shinn, William Glackens, George Luks, Stirling Calder (father of sculptor Alexander Calder), and Edward Davis (father of painter Stuart Davis). Self-consciously anti-academic, the members of the Charcoal Club read Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emile Zola, Honoré de Balzac, Henrik Ibsen, Leo Tolstoy, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Gilman Norris, Hamlin Garland, Stephen Crane, and especially Walt Whitman, discussing the relevance of their writing to art. The members of the Charcoal Club studied painting with Anschutz, and some knew Eakins and Whitman personally. Sloan, Luks, Shinn, and Glackens worked as illustrators for Philadelphia newspapers, which required them to produce quick sketches from notes, heightening their awareness of the details of urban life."

By the turn of the century, Henri had encouraged Sloan and a group of other illustrators to take up painting. Within a few years, Sloan had moved to New York City, where he began to concentrate on everyday urban subject matter. These urban realists formed the nucleus of what came to be known as the Ashcan School - Henri, Sloan, William Glackens, George Luks, and Everett Shinn. In order to earn a living, Sloan continued producing illustrations, such as his critically acclaimed vignettes for the novels of Charles Paul de Kock (1905), but soon he was regularly exhibiting his paintings of urban scenes with Henri and others. This phase of Sloan's career reached its apex in the famous exhibition of "The Eight" at the Macbeth Gallery in 1908 and the Exhibition of Independent Artists in 1910.

In 1912, Sloan (who had become a Socialist) assumed the position of art editor at a left-wing monthly magazine, The Masses, for which he witnessed the momentous Armory Show, which confronted Americans, including Sloan, with avant-garde European art (Post-Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism) that challenged their realist approach to painting.

This led Sloan to reassess his working methods and seek alternative sources of inspiration outside his accustomed urban milieu. From 1914 through 1918, he spent summers in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a small fishing village that had been popular as an artists' colony since the mid-nineteenth century. Beginning in 1919, his summer getaway became Santa Fe, new Mexico, where he was enthralled by the rugged desert scenery and Pueblo Indian ceremonies. Although Sloan remained a representational artist, he work took on certain abstract qualities later in his career. Despite his annual summer retreat to New Mexico, he continued to be an active painter and teacher in New York until his death in 1951.

The present exhibition, selected entirely from the collection of the Delaware Art Museum, constitutes the first retrospective of Sloan's drawings and other works on paper. It amply demonstrates that Sloan, a representational artist committed to depicting the world around him, also fully recognized the importance of subjective vision and imagination. This capacity for mediating between nature and expression - particularly noticeable in his drawings - proves beyond a doubt that his art is more than merely "realistic."


Excerpt from catalogue essay Drawing in the New York Scene: Sloan and Socialism in Greenwich Village, by Cristina Bishop

The Return from Toil suggests how a Socialist impulse may in fact underlie some of Sloan's art. Though his work hardly fits into the category of Marxist propaganda, it does, at times, embody a romantic vision of sociability and community that reflects the particular model of Socialism to which Sloan adhered. His depictions of human interaction and camaraderie perfectly represent the poetic Socialism that flowered in Greenwich Village during the pre-war years, "What I liked," Sloan later said about The Masses;"was that it had a satirical point of view with life as its subject and a socialist slant." (left: Study for The Return from Toil, c. 1913, ink on paper, 6 1/2 x 4 inches, Deleware Art Collection, 84-39)

With the advent of World War I, the United States Socialist Party increasingly demanded a hard-core commitment that proved incompatible with the freer philosophical approach of independent thinkers like Sloan. In order to promote a strong anti-war stance, The Masses; too, had begun to develop a more strident Socialist platform. Disillusioned by this trend, Sloan and several others resigned from the staff in 1916 in what has been dubbed the "Greenwich Village Revolt." At approximately the same time, Sloan withdrew from the Socialist Party. In the face of a disastrous war, the idealistic outlook of his "Village Socialism" was no longer tenable.

Although Sloan's official Party membership lasted only six years, he remained sympathetic to the basic principles of Socialism for the rest of his life. The Whitmanesque faith he held in progressive reform is expressed in his drawings which celebrate the community of life, a community he experienced in Greenwich Village prior to the war at places like McSorley's Saloon.

One of the few subjects Sloan would return to later in his career, McSorley's symbolism a New York when politics and art had comfortably joined in a dynamic of liberal ideology. In this "sacristy" of male companionship, "thinking workingmen" mingled over mugs of ale to argue the merits of their various beliefs" By repeatedly representing McSorley's, Sloan seemed determined to fix its intellectual atmosphere with the same permanence as the shamrock and. the multitude of clocks (visible in the drawing) which remain still today unchanged upon the tavern wall.

Sloan's work flourished between 1904 and 1916 because he was so engaged emotionally and intellectually that art and life fed upon each other and became virtually inseparable. His paintings from these years reveal his humanitarian bent and the mood of the liberal avant-garde, hut his drawings more immediately capture the essence of Greenwich Village and the buoyant optimism of the age. The unfettered freedom of Isadora in Revolt gives physical expression to the spirit of romantic revolt which typified the era. This monotype of Isadora Duncan illustrates in "her great big thighs, her small head, her full solid loins" not just a dancer. but an ideology: "I feel," Sloan said, "that she dances a symbol of human animal happiness as it should be, free from the unnatural trammels." And just as Isadora vigorously "dances away civilization's tainted brain vapors," one senses in her form that Sloan has also drawn them away - and with equally ebullient abandon." (left: Isadora in Revolt, 1915, monotype, 10 7/8 x 8 7/8 inches, Deleware Art Collection, 88-126)

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For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 4/6/11

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