John Sloan 1871 —1951
A leader of The Eight, John Sloan was born in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania. As a child Sloan became familiar with the works of William Hogarth, Thomas Rowlandson, and many other artists in the library of his great-uncle, the inventor Alexander Priestley.
Sloan's formal art training was sparse and interspersed with his daily work routine. In 1890 he attended drawing classes at night at the Spring Garden Institute. A year later he worked independently as an advertising artist in his own small studio, and by 1892 he was hired as a newspaper artist by the Philadelphia Inquirer. Among his fellow newspaper artists in Philadelphia were William Glackens, George Luks, and Everett Shinn.
During this period he took classes with Thomas Anshutz at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. However, it was through another teacher that Sloan met the artist Robert Henri, who first encouraged him to become a painter. Sloan joined Henri's circle of friends, artist-reporters such as William Glackens, George Luks, and Everett Shinn, who later constituted part of the "Eight," a group that later expanded into what was popularly known as the "Ashcan School."
In 1904 Sloan and his wife moved to New York, where he continued to work as an illustrator and became increasingly interested in depicting city life and city scenes. It was in New York that the "Eight" was formed, led by Henri and including Glackens, Shinn, Luks, Ernest Lawson, Maurice Prendergast, Arthur B. Davies, and Sloan.
Taking a keen interest in the spectacle of the modern city, Sloan depicts people of all ages strolling, shopping, and surveying their surroundings and each other. While some critics found Sloan's lower-class subject matter exciting, others, accustomed to more genteel themes, found it disturbing. Hostile critics charged that his paintings, like others of the "Eight," were "vulgar" and crudely finished and that they lacked the beauty of academic painting. Although Sloan received honorable mention for his painting The Coffee Line from the Eighth International of the Carnegie Institute in 1905, he was very discouraged during these early years of his career because he found no buyers for his work.
Sloan participated in several pioneer exhibitions, including The Eight at the MacBeth Gallery (1908), the Exhibition of Independent Artists on West Thirty-fifth Street (1910), and the Armory Show at Lexington and Twenty-fifth Streets (1913). These major shows were attempts by avant-garde artists to expand exhibition opportunities in America beyond the scope of the National Academy. Sloan entered two paintings and five etchings in the Armory Show, and that year marked the sale of a painting, Nude, Green Scarf, to collector and personal friend Albert C. Barnes. He was granted a one-man exhibition at Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's studio in 1916.
Following Henri's example and John Ruskin's theories, Sloan searched the city for inspiration and found it in the working-class people around him. Despite his concern for the plight of his subjects and the fact that he was troubled by the signs of injustice that he saw around him, Sloan attempted to keep social and political ideologies from filtering into his art. He made strict distinctions between his commercial work and the paintings and etchings that he did for exhibition in galleries and museums, referring only to the latter as "art." Nonetheless, he remained politically progressive, joining the Socialist party in 1910. During this period (1910-1915) both he and his wife became active participants in labor demonstrations and party politics. He even ran unsuccessfully as the Socialist party candidate for the New York State Assembly from 1910 through 1912. In 1912 Sloan assumed the position of art editor of The Masses, a revolutionary magazine with socialist leanings, which addressed working-class issues. Sloan produced innovative magazine layouts and provocative drawings during his term as art editor. However, on the eve of World War I, Sloan became disillusioned with the ability of the Socialist party to make a real difference in workers' lives, and in 1914 he withdrew from both the party and his work on The Masses. He finally resigned from The Masses in 1916, following a dispute regarding the political content of the magazine's artwork. In 1917 Sloan had a one-man show at Kraushaar's in New York, a gallery with which he maintained a lifelong connection. Sloan participated in the first show of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917. One year later he was named president of the Society of Independent Artists, a position that he held until his death.
Between 1914 and 1918 Sloan spent his summers at Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he painted many brilliantly dynamic landscapes. Gloucester Gardens 1915, being among the most beautiful of these works. He taught art classes there in the summer of 1916, and in the fall he began teaching at the Art Students League in New York, where he served as president in 1931, resigning from the league in 1932. He began teaching there again regularly in 1935 and remained an energetic instructor until his resignation in 1938. Known for his sharp tongue and incisive criticism, students, among them Alexander Calder, David Smith, Reginald Marsh, and Barnett Newman, respected him.
It was probably due to Sloan's paintings, which favored a dark palette and scenes of the gritty side of urban life in turn-of-the-century New York City, that the Eight was later dubbed the "Ashcan School." Sloan's subjects are voyeuristic, a spectator of the human dramas he glimpsed in the streets and tenements of New York. Duncan Phillips further noted in A Collection in the Making, that Sloan was a "...sympathetic and understanding observer of class consciousness, crowd psychology and the bitter ironies of life." One of America's most revered artists in his later years, Sloan continued to paint, etch, and experiment with new printing techniques, until his death in 1951.
In 1920 the Sloans bought a house in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This house became their second home in the summer months, while the couple involved themselves in community affairs focusing on Native-American culture. For many years Sloan served as illustrator for the New Mexico Quarterly and presided over several local cultural foundations, including the Exposition of Indian Tribal Arts, the Santa Fe Painters and Sculptors, and the New Mexico Alliance for the Arts. The 1920s marked a significant change in the nature of Sloan's art. He became preoccupied with structure and form, an interest that began to develop slowly after seeing the European modernist paintings in the 1913 Armory Show. In 1928 Sloan abandoned the painting technique that he learned from his mentor Henri--the fresh application of opaque colors based on the Maratta color system. Instead, he adopted the old master techniques of Titian and Peter Paul Rubens, which he learned by looking at the late nudes of Auguste Renoir. This method consisted of opaque underpainting in tempera with layers of oil glazes applied on top. During this period, except for his New Mexico landscapes, Sloan concentrated on female nude figures. In 1929 he superimposed graphic line work and crosshatching over the painted figures in order to better realize the form and to create a signature style. He also distorted both figure and space, experimenting with different types of perspective. Viewers, accustomed to Sloan's early works and familiar with his competence as a draftsman, were perplexed by the awkwardness and disturbing quality of the later nudes, even though the surfaces are beautifully rendered. Most viewers did not place them within the sphere of postimpressionism, which would preclude interpreting distortion as ineptitude. To Sloan's dismay, viewers failed to recognize the significance of these later works. While experimenting with new painting techniques, Sloan carried on his work as a printmaker. In 1936 he exhibited one hundred etchings at the Whitney Museum, and he mounted an etching retrospective at Kraushaar's the following year. Also in 1937 John Sloan produced sixteen prints illustrating Somerset Maugham's novel Of Human Bondage. Sloan continued to exhibit regularly throughout the 1930s and participated in the 1937 Whitney exhibition, New York Realists: 1900-1914, which featured the early city scenes for which he was known and praised. In 1939 Sloan wrote a treatise entitled Gist of Art, which spelled out the principles of and motivations behind his art. Here, Sloan discusses his struggle to go beyond the painted surface in order to communicate a deeper reality about life. The book was prepared with the assistance of his student and friend Helen Farr, whose class notes, memories, and collected remarks from other students formed the basis of the text. This document, encompassing techniques of art making as well as Sloan's personal vision of the world, stands as a testament to a dedicated artist and teacher. In May 1943 Dolly Sloan died of a heart attack. Barely one year later Sloan married Farr, whom he had met at the Art Students League in the 1920s. With his own health restored after three operations to clear his gall duct between 1938 and 1943, he began working with his usual enthusiasm. In 1950 he was awarded a gold medal for painting by American Academy of Arts and Letters. While preparing for a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum, Sloan and his wife spent the summer of 1951 in Hanover, New Hampshire. Sloan's doctors discouraged his usual trip to Santa Fe because of the potential effect of the altitude on the now almost eighty-year-old artist. Sloan died later that summer in Hanover. The curator of the Whitney Museum, Lloyd Goodrich, characterized the artist in the 1952 retrospective exhibition catalog: "In his green old age, Sloan with his leonine mass of gray hair, his indomitable face, his keen eyes, and his sharp tongue, was one of the legendary characters of the art world." Indeed, his urban scenes endure as major documents in American art and social history.
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View synoptic biography below.
The John Sloan Archives are at the Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington. Sloan's diary (1906-1912) is published as John Sloan's New York Scene (1965). Biographical information is in John Loughery, John Sloan: Painter and Rebel (1995); Van Wyck Brooks, A Painter's Life (1955); Lloyd Goodrich, John Sloan, 1871-1951 (1952), an exhibition catalog for the Whitney Museum of American Art; and David W. Scott and E. John Bullard, John Sloan, 1871-1951 (1971), an exhibition catalog for the National Gallery of Art. For information on Sloan's work see Rowland Elzea, John Sloan's Oil Paintings: A Catalogue Raisonné (1991), and Peter Morse, John Sloan's Prints: A Catalogue Raisonné of Etchings, Lithographs, and
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Posters (1969). See also Janice M. Coco, "Re-viewing John Sloan's Images of Women," Oxford Art Journal 21, no. 2 (1998); Patricia Hills, "John Sloan's Images of Working-Class Women: A Case Study of the Roles and Interrelationships of Politics, Personality, and Patrons in the Development of Sloan's Art, 1905-16," Prospects 5 (1980): 157-96; and Rebecca Zurier et al., Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and Their New York (1995), an exhibition catalog for the National Museum of American Art. Works by John Sloan are in over 100 museum collections including Addison Gallery of American Art; Arizona State University Art Museum; ; Art Institute of Chicago; Baltimore Museum of Art; Boca Raton Museum of Art; Brandywine River Museum; Brooklyn Museum of Art; Butler Institute of American Art; Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh/Carnegie; Cleveland Museum of Art; Colby College Museum of Art; Colorado Historical Society; Columbus Museum of Art; Dallas Museum of Art; Delaware Art Museum; Denver Art Museum; Detroit Art Institute; Frederick R Weisman Art Museum; George Walter Vincent Smith Museum; Georgia Museum of Art; High Museum of Art; Indianapolis Museum of Art; Jack S Blanton Museum of Art; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; ; Maier Museum of Art; Mead Art Museum; Memorial Art Gallery; Metropolitan Museum of Art; National Gallery of Art; National Portrait Gallery; New Orleans Museum of Art; Norton Museum of Art; Oklahoma City Museum of Art; Parrish Art Museum; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Phoenix Art Museum; Portland Art Museum; ; San Diego Museum of Art; Santa Barbara Museum of Art; Seattle Museum of Art; Sheldon Museum of Art; The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art; The Toledo Museum of Art; The University of Arizona Museum of Art; The University of Michigan Museum of Art; Whitney Museum of American Art and Williams College Museum of Art
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