Artist Spotlight: Eric Sloane (1905–1985)

Published on April 23rd, 2020 | Posted in Essays

By Nina Sangimino

To view a painting by Eric Sloane of a quintessential New England covered bridge, with its weathered clapboard, worn dirt road, and Huck Finn–inspired children fishing in the brook below, one is touched by the familiarity of the scene. But what seems at first glance to be a simple version of Yankee Americana reveals deeper meaning when understood in the context of the artist’s long career. With no less than forty books published during his lifetime, Sloane provided a window into his philosophies on arts, crafts, and American life, expressed through his pictures of our national landscape. To hear the artist describe his life and work in his own words is to understand the complexity of his ambition, which led to his extraordinary accomplishments not only as a painter, but also as a writer, meteorologist, historian, and craftsman.

Eric Sloane (1905–1985), New England Summer, oil on board, 23⅞ x 47¾ inches, inscribed and signed lower left: NEW ENGLAND SUMMER / Eric SLOANE; on verso: SKETCH FOR -PICTURESQUE AMERICA GROUP / Eric SLOANE / CORNWALL BRIDGE, CONN

Born Everard Jean Hinrichs in 1905 in New York City, Eric Sloane adopted his professional name to reflect his reverence for both America and his mentor at the Art Students League, Ashcan master John Sloan. Sloane began his artistic career as a traveling sign painter. His 1925 journey in the Ford Model-T that he “borrowed” from his family proved instrumental to his development. Time spent in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, working for Amish craftsmen, garnered Sloane’s deep appreciation for agrarian life, which he studied for later publications such as American Yesterday (1956), Diary of an Early American Boy: Noah Blake, 1805 (1962), and Eric Sloane’s Do: A Little Book of Early American Know-How (1972). Reaching Taos, New Mexico, later in the trip, the vast horizons and panoramas of the Southwest encouraged him to pursue fine art full time and sparked an intense interest in meteorology. He began painting “cloudscapes,” for which he became so well known that in 1976 he was commissioned by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum to paint a mural in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall. His early literary career included manuals for the US Air Force describing weather patterns, and he became so enthralled with the subject that he enrolled at MIT to understand the science of weather more thoroughly (his distaste for math, however, prevented him from completing his coursework). In 1939, he briefly took a position as broadcast weatherman for the Dumont television station in New York City. “Going downtown to the Weather Bureau to study government weather maps in the morning, back to the television’s station at noon to prepare the show, and then being made up (they all used heavy makeup in those days), took up the whole day and my seven o’clock show left me exhausted after the ‘three-minute’ effort…. Painting was easier.”[1]

Another important moment from Sloane’s foundational cross country drive was his first exposure to flight. In Ohio, he traded a pilot a painting for a flight, and the experience excited his mounting fascination with the sky. When Sloane returned to New York, he took up residence in Coney Island, painting signs and murals for the park and surrounding restaurants and inns. His new proximity to Floyd Bennett Field and Roosevelt Field fueled his interest in aviation, and he offered his services to local pilots painting license numbers and decorative designs on planes. His dual interests in art and air were encouraged by relationships formed during this time: Amelia Earhart purchased Sloane’s first “cloudscape,” and he met Reginald Marsh and other modernists painting the chaos of Coney Island.

Eric Sloane (1905–1985), The Glass Ball Vane, oil on board, 20 x 26 inches, signed and inscribed lower left: ERIC / SLOANE / NA; on verso: THE GLASS BALL VANE

Sloane’s passion for early American craftsmanship led to an impressive collection of historic tools, now housed in the Eric Sloane Museum and Kent Furnace in Connecticut. Beginning in 1956, Sloane split his time between Santa Fe and Connecticut, and New England vernacular architecture became a new focus. Painting from memory rather than on site, he considered his popular barn and covered bridge paintings “portraits of a spirit, not pictures of buildings” and believed that “real art depends so little on the subject, so much on the mood.” He explained that his choice of subject, however, was not a means for “nostalgia,” a label he despised, but rather a method of expression:

I have always regarded art as some sort of remembering, contending that painting or writing is primarily communication of the author’s remembrance, so I have really been in the business of reflection…. I regard nostalgia as a kind of disease and I cringe when my paintings are referred to as nostalgic instead of poems of awareness, monuments to meaningful antiquity.[2]

Throughout his lifetime, Eric Sloane was acknowledged for his many and varied talents. He published at least forty books with illustrations, was a member of the prestigious National Academy of Design and Salmagundi Club, and elected a Benjamin Franklin Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in London. He exhibited in New York, Moscow, Boston, Denver, Santa Fe, and Tulsa. His paintings are in many important museum collections today, including the Addison Gallery of American Art, New Britain Museum of American Art, Shelburne Museum, and Tacoma Art Museum. Sloane died unexpectedly of a heart attack immediately before the 1985 opening of his New York retrospective, Eric Sloane, N.A., Eighty, An American Souvenir: In Celebration of Eric Sloane’s 80th Birthday. In his final reflection on his life, written for the occasion of the exhibition, he described his ultimate purpose in art, which he had carried through every phase of his work,

We forget much more than we remember, yet the human brain is a computerlike clutter of data, forever waiting to be tapped. A song, a painting, a written sentence, even some sound, or a faint odor can trigger the memory to revive long-lost emotions, fresh as when they were first experienced. In fact, the passing of time often intensifies, making the picture more brilliant. That is why I seldom paint on location, recreating from memory instead.[3]

Eric Sloane (1905–1985), Landscape with Covered Bridge, oil on board, 23⅞ x 34¼ inches, signed lower left: Eric Sloane

[1] Eric Sloane, Eighty, an American Souvenir (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1985), n.p.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.