As one of the leading proponents of the anti-academic “social realist” movement, John Sloan is considered one of the most important American artists of the early twentieth century.
Sloan was born in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania and grew up in Philadelphia. Forced to leave school in order to help support his parents and sisters at age 16, he took a job in a book and print store where he copied drawings and learned the craft of etching. In 1890 he went to work in a stationery store where he designed greeting cards and calendars, and continued to make etchings. During this time he attended drawing classes at the Spring Garden Institute.
After an unsuccessful attempt to become a freelance commercial artist, Sloan took a position in the art department of the Philadelphia Enquirer in 1892. That same year, he began study with Thomas Anschutz at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art and also met the charismatic and free-thinking artist, Robert Henri. A lively group of artists, named the Charcoal Club, formed around Henri in whose studio they met weekly to paint, receive critiques, and discuss art and social philosophy. Among this group were Sloan and three of his fellow illustrators from the Philadelphia Press (where he started working in 1895.) The friends, William Glackens, Everett Shinn, George Luks, and Sloan became known as the “Philadelphia Four.”
Sloan married Anna Maria (Dolly) Wall in 1901, and the couple moved to New York in 1904, settling in Greenwich Village. Sloan painted many of his best-known works during his early years in New York, and this was the period in which he focused on urban street life as his subject matter. Although genteel genre painting was a centuries-old tradition, Sloan and his friends preferred the gritty realities of working class life-store fronts, saloons, subways, back yards and rooftops-images that the National Academy considered vulgar and inappropriate.
His “snapshots” of urban life in oil and ink are now considered Sloan’s most important output, but he sold very little at the time and continued to produce illustrations to make his living. He drew puzzles and pictures for the Philadelphia Press in addition to illustrating stories for such magazines as Harper’s, Collier’s, Scribner’s, Good Housekeeping, and The Saturday Evening Post.
In 1908, Robert Henri (who also had moved to New York) organized a gallery show of young painters who, like him, were bucking the academic establishment with both the subject and style of their paintings. Named “The Eight,” it included Henri, the Philadelphia Four, and three others whose work had been rejected by the National Academy: Arthur Davies, Maurice Prendergast, and Ernest Lawson. This landmark exhibition was the origin of the Ashcan School of social realist painting.
Ever the rebel, Henri organized the Exhibition of Independent Artists in 1910 as an anti-academic, egalitarian no-jury, no-prize show. Sloan quickly involved himself in the Exhibition and served as president of The Society of Independent Artists from 1918 until his death.
Sloan sympathized with his “man on the street” subjects but he did not identify with them. “I never mingled with the people,” he said, “I feel as a spectator of life.” The same was true of his politics. He joined the Socialist Party in 1910, and in 1912 he became art editor for Max Eastman’s socialist magazine The Masses. Nevertheless, Sloan disdained propaganda, and his paintings and drawings rarely contained overt political content much to the consternation of its publisher. He resigned the magazine over this issue in 1916.
In 1913, Sloan helped organize the ground-breaking Armory Show which introduced European modernism to American viewers. He exhibited two paintings and five etchings. He also took away new influences from the Armory Show, especially the more colorful palette of the Fauves and the stylized drawing of emerging abstract painters which emphasized form and line over objective three-dimensional reality.
Beginning in 1914, Sloan taught at the Art Students League for about ten years. He also taught briefly at the George Luks Art School. His students are said to have respected his talent and position in the art world, but feared his caustic critiques. Among his better-known pupils are Reginald Marsh, Alexander Calder, and Barnett Newman.
During the mid-1910s, Sloan spent summers in Gloucester, Massachusetts where he began to move away from his urban scenes and dark colors, instead focusing on landscape paintings employing a brighter palette. In 1919, Sloan traded Glocester for Santa Fe, probably at the suggestion of Robert Henri who had painted there during the summers of 1916 and 1917. Sloan returned to Santa Fe every summer for the next twenty-nine years, working out of a small studio on Garcia Street, just off Canyon Road.
Sloan became an active and influential member of the Santa Fe art colony and the local community. He especially liked the Museum of Fine Art’s “open door” un-juried exhibition policy which allowed any New Mexico artist to exhibit work. That the open door program sounds like the Exhibition of Independent Artists is no coincidence since Robert Henri had encouraged the Museum in this direction during his visits to Santa Fe.
Most of Sloan’s southwestern paintings are landscapes, although he also rendered street scenes, Indian dances, and other slices of the quiet, informal life of the desert town. He developed a keen interest in the arts of Native American in the region and became president of the Exposition of Indian Tribal Arts in the 1930s. He also lobbied the Society of Independent Artists to include Native artists in their shows.
Dolly Sloan died in 1943, and the next year Sloan married Helen Farr, who had been a student. After Sloan’s death in 1951, Farr carefully preserved his estate and eventually presented more than 5000 artworks plus his archival papers to the Delaware Art Museum which now includes the Helen Farr Sloan Library.