The Passing City

By Saccoccia, Susan | Humanities, September/October 2007 | Go to article overview

The Passing City


Saccoccia, Susan, Humanities


AS ITS BILLINGS 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 proteges to depict the real world rather than idealized scenes.

Sloan took Henri's advice to heart. He had read WaH: 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 1 905 and 1 906, 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 often 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 ofthat 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. …

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