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John Sloan: Village Visionary

Many artists have been inspired by the scenes of life in New York City, particularly Lower Manhattan. But perhaps no artist captures the feeling of New York during the hot, heavy days of August like the painter John Sloan. Sloan was one of the leading figures of the “Ashcan School,” a loose collection of artists who depicted everyday life in early twentieth-century New York. “Ashcan” was a derisive reference by critics to the themes and style of their work, but Sloan and his friends left a dynamic record of everything from street life to popular culture to the relations between men and women.

John Sloan at work

And no artist painted Greenwich Village with as much affection and authenticity as John Sloan. He documented the Village with exuberance: Washington Square on a rainy night, a theater on Carmine Street, a rooftop scene of girls drying their hair in the sun, the dimly-lit atmosphere of McSorley’s, the choreography of children playing in a Village park.

Sloan painted urban life with a realism that was rejected by the art critics of that time.  He and most of the Ashcan School painters had worked as illustrators for newspapers and magazines before becoming artists, so their art conveyed the immediacy of an on-the-scene report.  Although attacked as being “devotees of the ugly,” these artists believed that beauty could be found in ordinary life.

Sloan’s diary described the day he found the studio he rented at 2 Cornelia Street:   “March 22, 1912. Found a loft with fine North by West light. Eleventh floor of a new triangular building at 4th Street and Sixth Avenue.”  This Flatiron-shaped structure was indeed new, built in 1907 – and Sloan’s monthly rent was a steep $45.  He would later paint this building in a night view – titled The City from Greenwich Village – with the Sixth Avenue Elevated careening across the sky.  Village Preservation was successful in obtaining landmark designation of that building along with its surroundings. You can read about the designation of that building and of the designation of the Greenwich Village Historic District Extension II here.

Another of his much-loved Village paintings is Jefferson Market, Sixth Avenue.  This fanciful red-brick 1877 Venetian Gothic building then served as a courthouse; Sloan often stopped by its Night Court, fascinated by the tragedy and comedy enacted here. He wrote, “This is much more stirring to me than the great majority of plays.” 

Despite eventual acclaim, Sloan (1871-1951) was never able to make a living by his art alone but had to count on income from illustrating and teaching.  As a young man, his routine was to take just enough commercial assignments – magazine etchings, book illustrations, posters – to pay the bills, and then to spend the rest of his time painting.  His staunchest ally was always Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who gave him his first solo exhibition at the Whitney Studio Gallery.  Eventually, the gallery became the Whitney Museum of American Art and continued to add Sloan’s paintings to their collection.

John Sloan is also known by Villagers for participating in a rowdy mock insurrection, when he and Marcel Duchamp, along with four fellow artists, climbed the 110 steps of the interior spiral staircase of Washington Square Arch on a winter night in 1917.  They recited poems, fired cap pistols, and announced that Greenwich Village was now a “Free and Independent Republic.”  More of a caper than a revolution, this became a much-told Village legend!

Text courtesy of Judith Stonehill from her book “Greenwich Village: A Guide to America’s Left Bank

August 2, 2021 marks the 150th anniversary of Sloan’s birth. In celebration of that date, Village Preservation held a public program with Robert Snyder, Professor Emeritus of American Studies at Rutgers University. Professor Snyder has worked since the 1980s with journalists, museum curators, and documentarians to share history with a broad public. He has written widely on New York City history and the arts, and since 2019 has served as Manhattan Borough Historian. Among his many publications, Snyder co-authored “Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and Their New York,” which won the Barr Prize of the College Art Association. This free public program, a companion program to our upcoming benefit, VILLAGE VOICES, is but one of many programs that highlight the trailblazers who lived and worked in our neighborhoods. Please check our events page for more information about these programs.

The life and work of John Sloan will be on display as part of our 2021 Annual Benefit: VILLAGE VOICES. Our benefit will feature an engaging installation of exhibit boxes displayed throughout our neighborhoods featuring photographs, artifacts, and recorded narration that will provide entertaining and illuminating insight into the momentous heritage of the Village. 

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