John Sloan (1871–1951)

Leading Ashcan School Painter, Etcher and Teacher

By Margarita Karasoulas

Chronicling his New York locale as a spectator of urban life, John Sloan is considered the premiere artist of the Ashcan school and the Eight. He is best remembered for the breadth of his pictorial oeuvre and the uncompromising realism that came to define his art.

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Memberships
VI. Notes
VII. Suggested Resources

I. Biography

Known as the “dean of American artists,” John Sloan was one of the most influential members of the Ashcan school. Born in 1871 in Lock Haven, PA, he lived and worked in Philadelphia for most of his early career prior to his fateful decision to pursue art in New York City. Sloan first nurtured his artistic talents by working as a clerk at Porter & Coates, a dealer in books and fine prints, where he drew copies of Rembrandt images and designed greeting cards for clients. Self-taught in etching, he additionally attended night classes at the Spring Garden Institute and enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts between 1892-1894, where he studied under Thomas Anshutz.1

Like most of his Ashcan colleagues, Sloan launched his career in commercial illustration. In 1892, he began working for the Philadelphia Inquirer and later moved to the art department at the Philadelphia Press. A member of the “Philadelphia Five,” he frequently met with William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn, and Robert Henri in the latter’s studio at 806 Walnut Street. Henri had a profound influence on Sloan and actively encouraged him to paint. Sloan acknowledged, “It was Robert Henri who set me up to painting seriously; without his inspiring friendship and guidance I probably might never have thought of it at all.”2

With his newspaper opportunities dwindling, Sloan moved to New York in 1904, the site of the nation’s flourishing art scene and cultural and intellectual center. He was at first apprehensive of his new surroundings and admitted that “New York still awed an unacclimated Pennsylvanian.”3 Yet Sloan recognized the vast potential for his career and found New York to be more “artistic,” noting that “a good thing done in New York is heralded abroad – a good thing done in Philadelphia is well-done in Philadelphia.”4 He quickly came to love New York and described it as the “gayest of cities, the cosmopolitan palette where the spectrum changed in every side of the street.”5

Of all the Ashcan artists, Sloan’s images of New York City celebrated the lives of ordinary Americans in a way that was unprecedented in American art. He found his subjects in his immediate surroundings; the streets he traveled and the people he encountered were immediately translated to canvas. Sloan walked several miles a day in search of subject matter, until he “soaked in something to paint,” and kept extensive details of what he observed in his diary.6 He typically captured New Yorkers going about their routines from the perspective of an outside observer, painting intimate scenes with a window-like viewpoint in order to focus closely and observe the subject undetected.

Sloan’s subjects were as diverse and varied as the city itself. He painted New York’s great avenues and landmarks, the tenements of the Lower East Side, the sweeping vistas of the Manhattan skyline, the crowd of working-class men at McSorley’s Bar, the audience in the moving picture house, the election night festivities in Herald Square, and the trio of women drying their hair on a Sunday morning. Sloan’s images of New York provided a sprawling and comprehensive pictorial testament to urban life and culture at the turn of the century. His student, Guy Péne du Bois aptly described him as the “historian of Sixth Avenue, Fourteenth Street, Union Square, and Madison Square.”7 Sloan was keenly aware of New York’s rapidly changing environment and acknowledged that “the fun of being a New York painter is that landmarks are torn down so rapidly that your canvases become historical records before the paint on them is dry.”8

While Sloan’s work is commonly associated with metropolitan views of New York City and Philadelphia, he became interested in other themes and locales. From 1914-1918 he spent his summers in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he experimented with bright colors and impasto brushwork.9 In 1920, he purchased a summer home in Santa Fe, where he was actively identified with the art of New Mexico and the Southwest. During the latter portion of his career, city subjects became less appealing and he turned his focus to landscapes, interiors, portraits and nudes. In the tradition of the Ashcan school, Sloan preferred the realism of Homer, Eakins, Manet, Courbet and Daumier in stark contrast to the aestheticism of the Impressionists. His earlier works were grounded in urban realism and his later works characterized by a distinct, cross-hatching style.10

Sloan’s works are particularly distinctive in the context of the Ashcan school due to his strong commitment to politics. In 1910, he joined the Socialist Party and in 1912 began creating illustrations for the popular socialist magazine The Masses. In spite of great economic prosperity, New York also presented the Ashcan artists with glaring inequalities between the classes. The city itself was physically divided by neighborhoods of grand mansions juxtaposed to poor immigrant communities and dilapidated slums. Sloan was undoubtedly influenced by the socially conscious art of the Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siquieros, and José Clemente Orozco. Though he never espoused propaganda, his socialist beliefs resonate in his urban scenes and deeply sympathetic treatment of lower-class subjects.11

Sloan was also an esteemed art instructor who had a profound influence on his students. Beginning in 1914, he taught at the Art Students League and later at the George Luks School of Art. After his death, the art critic Edward Allan Jewel wrote: “He is the artist’s guide, philosopher and friend. He is himself the artist through and through. And he brings to the profession of teaching a fervor so intense that it may be described as mystical. There are, to be sure, many liberal and independent minds. There are many artists, many teachers. There is only one John Sloan.”12

During his lifetime, Sloan did not achieve much financial success due to the inventiveness and fiercely independent nature of his artistic vision. He was later dubbed a “rebel with a paintbrush” as a result of his refusal to cater to academic or market perceptions of acceptable art. As his biographer Lloyd Goodrich acknowledged, “His early work had been too realistic for its day; his mature genre paintings ran counter to the trend of expressionism and his figure pieces to the trend toward abstraction.” Yet Sloan made a conscious decision to ignore the fashionable styles and conventions of his time and worked to “please himself.” He deliberately painted “summer scenes for winter sales”13 and his “darkest, blackest pictures when impressionism became the vogue.”14

Owing to the visionary and avant-garde nature of his art, Sloan’s works would not be fully appreciated until after his time. He passed away in 1951 due to postoperative complications in Hanover, New Hampshire. Today, his works are venerated for their aesthetic and historical value. After his death, Life Magazine asserted that no living man had a greater influence in the American Art world.15

John Sloan left a lasting mark on the American art scene at the turn of the century and an important legacy for the succeeding generations of American artists. His works continue to memorialize the city in which they were created and the era in which they were produced. His art is collected by every major museum including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the National Gallery of Art, and the Smithsonian Museum of American Art.

II. Chronology

1871 Born August 2, in Lock Haven, PA, son of James Dixon Sloan and Henrietta Ireland Sloan
1876 Family moved to Germantown, PA and then Philadelphia, PA
1884 Began attending Philadelphia’s Central High School – classmates included William Glackens and Albert C. Barnes
1888 Left the Central High School in order to support his family. Became employed as clerk at Porter & Coates, dealer in books and fine prints
1892 Began working in the art department of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Shared studio at 705 Walnut with Joe Laub. Enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where he studied under Thomas Anshutz and first met Robert Henri.
1893 Became friends with George Luks and Everett Shinn. With Glackens and Henri, became cofounder of the Charcoal Club. Rented Henri’s studio at 806 Walnut Street with Laub.
1895 Left the Inquirer to work for the Philadelphia Press
1898 Moved to NYC to work for the New York Herald in July. Returned to Philadelphia in October and resumed work for the Philadelphia Press
1900 Exhibited Walnut Street Theater at the Art Institute of Chicago and exhibited Independence Square, Philadelphia at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh
1901 Exhibited for the first time in the Annual Exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Exhibited at Allan Gallery, in the first independent group show organized by Henri. Married Dolly Wall
1902 Began illustrations for the deluxe edition of the novels of Charles Paul de Kock
1903 Left the Philadelphia Press but continued to work for them marginally
1904 Permanently moved to NYC into Sherwood Studio Building; his studio on the same floor as Henri’s. Moved to apartment at 165 West 23rd Street. Exhibited in group show at the National Arts Club in New York. Exhibited at the Society of American Artists.
1905 Made the first eight etchings of the New York City life series. Received Honorable Mention for The Coffee Line at the 8th International of the Carnegie Institute.
1906 Began writing in his diary, which he continued doing through 1913
1907 Briefly taught one day a week at the Pittsburgh Art Students League
1908 “The Eight” exhibition opened at the Macbeth Gallery
1909 Began using the Maratta color system
1910 Joined the Socialist Party. Exhibited with and served as Treasurer for the Exhibition of Independent Artists. Ran for a seat in the New York State assembly on the Socialist ticket.
1912 Joined Editorial board and acts as Art Director of socialist political magazine The Masses. Leased studio at 35 Sixth Avenue in the Greenwich Village. Rented apartment at 155 East 22nd street, close to Henri’s apartment near Gramercy Park. Later moved to a new apartment on 61 Perry Street.
1913 Moved to new apartment at 240 West 4th Street. Exhibited two paintings and five etchings in the International Exhibition of Modern Art (Armory Show). Moved to an 8th floor studio at 35 6th Avenue. Sold Nude, Green Scarf to Dr. Albert C. Barnes.
1914 Began spending summers in Gloucester, Massachusetts
1915 Moved apartment and studio to 88 Washington Place in the Greenwich Village
1916 First one man exhibition at Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s studio. Began association with the Kraushaar Galleries. John Kraushaar would remain his art dealer throughout his life. Resigned from The Masses and left the Socialist Party. Began teaching at the Art Students League in September
1917 Participated in first exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists
1918 Became President of the Society of Independent Artists. Solo exhibition at Kraushaar Galleries.
1919 Began spending summers in Santa Fe, NM; purchased home there in 1920
1921 Overseas exhibition by Whitney included Sloan’s works
1923 Sold twenty oil paintings to George Otis Hamlin
1924 Served on jury of American section of the Carnegie International. Resigned from the Art Students League
1925 Returned to the Art Students League
1926 Awarded Philadelphia Sesquicentennial International Exposition’s Gold Medal for etching Hell-Hole (1917)
1927 Moved apartment and studio to 53 Washington Square South
1928 Adopted underpainting and glazing techniques
1929 Elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Works featured in MoMA’s exhibition “Nineteen Living Americans”
1931 Made honorary member and elected President of the Art Students League. Awarded Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Beck Gold Medal for Vagis the Sculptor (1930)
1932 Resigned as President of the Art Students League. Began teaching at the Ecole d’Arte, Alexander Archipenko’s school, where he worked until February 1933. Founded the Washington Square Outdoor Show. Works featured in MoMA’s exhibition “American Painting and Sculpture, 1862-1932”
1934 Elected head of the George Luks School by students and executors, taught there until May 1935
1935 Returned to Art Students League, where he remained a teacher until 1937. Moved his apartment and studio to the Chelsea Hotel
1936 Whitney Museum of American Art organized exhibition of Sloan’s etchings
1937 Whitney Museum of American Art organized “New York Realists, 1900-1914”
1939 Published Gist of Art. Metropolitan Museum of Art organized exhibition “Life in America” at the World Fair
1942 Elected to American Academy of Arts and Letters. Won first prize at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Artists for Victory” exhibition with print Fifth Avenue in 1909
1943 Retrospective on Sloan at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Death of Dolly Sloan
1944 Remarried to Helen Farr in February
1945 Sloan delivered Moody Lecture at the Art Institute of Chicago. Philadelphia Museum of Art organized “Artists of Philadelphia: William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn, John Sloan”
1946 Dartmouth College exhibited “John Sloan Paintings and Prints: 75th Anniversary Retrospective”
1947 Began to keep a diary again
1950 Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibited “American Paintings Today.” Sloan inducted to American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
1951 Died on September 7th from postoperative complications in Hanover, NH
1952 Whitney Museum of American Art organized memorial retrospective

III. Collections

Addison Gallery of American Art, MA
Art Institute of Chicago, IL
Bowdoin College Museum of Art, ME
Brooklyn Museum, NY
Butler Institute of American Art, OH
Carnegie Museum of Art, PA
Cleveland Museum of Art, OH
Columbus Museum of Art, OH
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Currier Gallery of Art, NH
Dallas Museum of Art, TX
Dayton Art Institute, OH
Delaware Museum of Art, DE
Detroit Institute of Arts, MI
Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, CA
Harvard University Art Museum, MA
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.
Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College
Indianapolis Museum of Art, IN
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA
Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, NY
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Minneapolis Institute of Arts, MN
Montclair Art Museum, NJ
Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
Museum of Modern Art, NY
Oklahoma City Museum of Art, OK
Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University, NC
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Newark Museum, NJ
Palmer Museum of Art, Pennsylvania State University, PA
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, PA
Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA
Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
Princeton University Art Museum, NJ
San Diego Museum of Art, CA
Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, IL
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Washington, D.C.
Springfield Museum of Art, OH
Terra Foundation for American Art, IL
Toledo Museum of Art, OH
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, VA
Walker Art Center, MN
Whitney Museum of Art, NY

IV. Exhibitions

1908 Macbeth Gallery
1916 Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s Studio
1918 -1951 Kraushaar Galleries

V. Memberships

American Academy of Arts and Letters
American Academy of Arts and Sciences
Art Students League
Charcoal Club
National Arts Club
National Institute of Arts and Letters
Society of American Artists
Society of Independent Artists

VI. Notes

1 Rebecca Zurier, Picturing the City: Urban Vision and the Ashcan School (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), p. 253.
2 Joyce K. Schiller and Heather Campbell Coyle, “John Sloan’s Urban Encounters,” in John Sloan’s New York (Wilmington: Delaware Art Museum, 2007), p. 26.
3 Rebecca Zurier, Picturing the City: Urban Vision and the Ashcan School (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), p. 260.
4 Joyce K. Schiller and Heather Campbell Coyle, “John Sloan’s Urban Encounters,” in John Sloan’s New York (Wilmington: Delaware Art Museum, 2007), p. 29.
5 “John Sloan, Artist, Dead at Age of 80” New York Times, September 9, 1951.
6 Rebecca Zurier, Picturing the City: Urban Vision and the Ashcan School (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), p. 262.
7 Joyce K. Schiller and Heather Campbell Coyle, “John Sloan’s Urban Encounters,” in John Sloan’s New York (Wilmington: Delaware Art Museum, 2007), p. 65.
8 Joyce K. Schiller and Heather Campbell Coyle, “John Sloan’s Urban Encounters,” in John Sloan’s New York (Wilmington: Delaware Art Museum, 2007), p. 71.
9 Sarah Vure, “Art Matters: John Sloan, Independence and the Aesthetic Consumer,” in The Eight and American Modernisms, ed. Elizabeth Kennedy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), p. 147.
10 Howard Devree, “Art by John Sloan on Exhibition Here,” New York Times, February 3, 1948.
11 Sarah Vure, “Art Matters: John Sloan, Independence and the Aesthetic Consumer,” in The Eight and American Modernisms, ed. Elizabeth Kennedy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), p. 146.
12 “John Sloan, Artist, Dead at Age of 80” New York Times, September 9, 1951.
13 Sarah Vure, “Art Matters: John Sloan, Independence and the Aesthetic Consumer,” in The Eight and American Modernisms, ed. Elizabeth Kennedy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), p. 145-146.
14 “John Sloan, Artist, Dead at Age of 80” New York Times, September 9, 1951.
15 Sarah Vure, “Art Matters: John Sloan, Independence and the Aesthetic Consumer,” in The Eight and American Modernisms, ed. Elizabeth Kennedy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), p. 152.

VII. Suggested Resources

Brooks, Van Wyck. John Sloan: A Painter’s Life. New York: Dutton, 1955.
Coco, Janice M. “John Sloan and the Female Subject.” PhD diss., Cornell University, 1993.
Elzea, Rowland. John Sloan: Spectator of Life. Wilmington: Delaware Art Museum, 1988.
Goodrich, Lloyd. John Sloan. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1952.
Holcomb, Grant. John Sloan, the Gloucester Years. Springfield: Springfield Museum of Fine Arts, 1980.
Kraft, James. John Sloan in Santa Fe. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1981.
Leeds, Valerie. The World of John Sloan. Orlando: Mennello Museum of American Art, 2008.
Loughery, John. John Sloan: Painter and Rebel. New York: H. Holt, 1995.
Perlman, Bernard. Revolutionaries of Realism: The Letters of John Sloan and Robert Henri. Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1997.
Scott, David. John Sloan. New York: Watson-Guptill, 1975.
Sloan, John. Gist of Art. New York: American Artists Group, 1939.