Lines and Colors art blog

John Sloan and The Eight - Ashcan SchoolLet’s see if I can get the math right on this, let alone the connections.

John Sloan, William Glackens, George Luks and Everett Shinn, who are sometimes referred to as the “Philadelphia Four”, were central to the group of upstart artists who critics in the early part of the 20th Century would mockingly dub “The Ashcan School”.

The four had common backgrounds as illustrators for The Philadelphia Inquirer and the The Philadelphia Press and attended classes at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Sloan went to high school at Central High in Philadelphia, along with Glackens and Albert C. Barnes, who would later establish the Barnes Foundation. Sloan and Glackens went on to study at the Academy. Among their instructors was Thomas Anshutz, who, as the leading student of Thomas Eakins, inherited Eakins’ mantle when the latter was forced from the school.

Sloan eventually met another influential student of Anshutz, Robert Henri, a strong willed and charismatic artist who preached rebellion from the constraints of academic art.

Henri encouraged the four to pursue careers as gallery artists, paint honestly what they saw in life, particularly contemporary urban life, and suggested they study European artists like Frans Hals, Goya, Valázquez, and Manet.

The five painters eventually relocated, one by one, to New York. In 1908 the five artists from Philadelphia mounted a joint exhibition with three other artists, Authur B. Davies, Maurice Prendergast and Ernest Lawson. The exhibition was in part a protest against their rejection by art critics of the time. Though they only exhibited as a group one time, it earned them the title of “The Eight”.

The label of “Ashcan School” was applied to the five painters from Philadelphia for their portrayal of gritty scenes of urban life, tenement houses, the poor and lower working class, which were considered unfit subjects for paintings by the art establishment.

The “Ashcan School” (a term used more in retrospect than at the time, and never by the artists to refer to themselves), was in part a rebellion against academic art and in part a refutation of the other upstart movement in American art, American Impressionism.

The Ashcan artists adopted a darker palette and rejected the more genteel subject matter of the Impressionist influenced painters. The latter style (or group of styles) also had a focus in Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the form of New Hope artists (see my posts on Daniel Garber and Fern Coppedge), and in New York and Boston in the form of “The Ten” (see my posts on Childe Hassam, Edmund Tarbell, J. Alden Weir and John Henry Twatchman).

Even though, like those painters, Sloan and his compatriots painted traditional landscape subjects, portraits and figurative work, they are mostly noted for their images of the rough unpolished textures of city life, rooftops, side streets, alleyways, elevated trains, clotheslines, tenement stoops, back yards, bars and brothels.

Sloan is sometimes thought of as a socially oriented painter, and for a time was involved in Socialist groups, but he said he disliked “propaganda” in paintings and that his scenes were done with “sympathy, but no social consciousness”.

Unlike many of his associates, and perhaps most of the American Impressionist painters, Sloan was not a facile painter. He painted slowly and methodically, and was more likely to finish his paintings in the studio from location sketches and notes than to paint them “en plein air”. Sloan shared Hopper’s technique of painting out of windows, sometimes using the window as a framing device.

Still his paintings carry an uncanny feeling of place and atmosphere, particularly in catching subdued light and subtle color shifts of rain and fog, or the colors of night in the city.

Sloan was also prolific as an etcher; and I think his etchings, and the graphic elements in his paintings, in which he often flattened forms with almost solid areas of color, had a distinct impact on mid-20th Century illustration, as well as other painters of his time and after.

Sloan taught at the Art Students League for over ten years, and for a short time at the George Luks Art School. His students included Alexander Calder, Reginald Marsh, Peggy Bacon, and Barnett Newman.

Though his paintings bring high prices at auction today, he sold few during his lifetime and reportedly told his students, “I have nothing to teach you that will help you to make a living”.

The Delaware Art Museum, a gem of a small museum that I’ve mentioned before in my posts on Howard Pyle and the Pre-Raphaelites, has a terrific collection of Sloan and his contemporaries, largely due to a bequest from Helen Farr Sloan, the artist’s second wife.

The museum has organized a traveling exhibition, Seeing the City: Sloan’s New York that is currently at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago until September 14, 2008, and will then travel to the Renolda House Museum of American Art in North Carolina from October 4, 2008 to January 4, 2009.

The exhibit has a dedicated web site, which features an extensive gallery of Sloan’s work, extensive biographical information, resources and other features, like Sloan’s new York Then and Now, that lets you compare his paintings, or period photographs of where he lived and painted, with modern photographs of the same scenes.

There is also a book published to accompany the exhibit, John Sloan’s New York. Sloan published a book of his teaching called Gist of Art, which I believe has been republished recently as John Sloan on Drawing and Painting.

One of the best online sources for Sloan’s work is The Athenaeum, which has a nice selection of 41 works, reproduced larger than elsewhere and with a good color balance. Click on the thumbnail for a dedicated page, then again for the larger image.

Sloan, whether as a member of the Philadelphia Four (or Five), or of The Eight, was one of a small number of artists who helped define a new way of seeing and painting.


3 responses to “John Sloan”

  1. As someone who worked in a newspaper art department for 29 years it’s fascinating to me how many of these ashcan artists did the same. Reginald Marsh was another: He worked at the Daily News in NYC and later contributed drawings to the New Yorker.

    But where many artists continue to grow and evolve as they age (Andrew Wyeth continues to surprise even at ninety or so) Sloan disappoints at the end of his career. His nudes in particular get seriously weird in the last 5 to ten years of his life while he experimented with a linear style of painting that made the women look as if they’d been grilled on the barbecue. (See “Looking out at Washington Square” in the Smart Show for example.)

    It’s as though at the end he jettisoned his own advice about drawing and tried to adopt the Hawthorne approach. But for him it didn’t work. The rendering got clunky, self-conscious and distracting and the color didn’t save it.

    Nonetheless, he created so many of the most iconic images of early 20th century America in his early and mid-career. Thanks for a great post and some panoramic art context, Charley.

  2. Brian L. Avatar
    Brian L.

    For those interested, the Detroit Institute of Arts has quite a few Sloan etchings (as well as Martin Lewis and George Bellows) on display as part of its fantastic exhibit “Give it a Rest: People at Play in American Prints and Drawings, 1890–1945”, through August 3.

  3. Wow, what a great post! I love the second painting in the lineup; he really captured the vibrant-yet-muted colors of trees in the rain.