Important Art by John Sloan
Sloan's foray into the art world began as an illustrator for newspapers and a designer of book covers and posters. His ability to succinctly yet artistically render eye-catching subjects and craft sophisticated questions made him a highly popular puzzle designer. This work on paper was created during his employment at the Philadelphia Press, where he created puzzles for the newspaper's Sunday edition from 1899. In this particular puzzle, readers are asked to find hidden flute player within the drawing of a snake charmer, submitting their answers to the paper who would award prizes.
While these puzzle drawings provided a much-needed income for Sloan, they were also an important opportunity for the largely self-taught artist to hone his skills. While he would become best known for his realist Ashcan School paintings, these early works show Sloan's earlier versatility in the Art Nouveau poster style. According to David Scott, in describing these paintings, "Sloan thoroughly enjoyed the work, and he poured ingenuity and imagination into the games he played with words, shapes, and colors.
Characteristic of Art Nouveau, Sloan's line ran into spirited fantasy when it had the freedom to take off on rhythmic excursions depicting plant forms, flowing hair, billowing or patterned drapery, or swirling water. Decorative passages were carried exuberantly to the verge of independent abstractions." Here, Sloan's colorful illustration features a woman, gracefully captured in motion with an "s" shape curve to her body. Her left arm is bent at a ninety-degree angle with her hand pointing towards the snake which she watches as it curls its way around her arm.
For both the viewer and the figures in this street scene, the focal point of Sloan's painting is a female hairdresser, visible through the second story window of a building. Positioned in side profile, with gloved hands she is coloring the long red hair of a woman whose back is turned to us. It is a slice of everyday life, complete with the overwhelming visual display that characterized the urban experience in the early 20th century.
This work is an important early example of the Ashcan School, a group in which Sloan played a key role. Artists associated with this style featured day-to-day moments of life in New York City, preserving their mundane but gritty realism. At the same time, the painting becomes a statement about looking - both at the painting itself and at the world. According to John Loughery, "the theme of the window frame and the very act of looking inevitably became almost a preoccupation for Sloan...."
Sloan spent hours walking the city streets and sketching scenes like the one found here. He also worked from his window and rooftop, watching people go about their lives. At the same time that he documented this urban community, he often captured loneliness, the lack of connection, and the sense of isolation that can exist among a crowd. The private act of grooming is performed for an audience (unknown to the client), but all of these people remain strangers to each other. It is an accidental community, bound together for a fleeting instant.
A contrast in colors, John Sloan's painting features a group of women, elegantly dressed in white, entering a building in the darkness of evening. The sign above the open, illuminated doorway reads "Haymarket."
The painting, one of many New York City-themed works Sloan created as part of The Eight, depicts a dance hall. This was a scandalous subject, particularly as the women were shown entering the building (a dance hall of ill repute) without male escorts. This characterized them as independent modern women, in search of pleasure and not bound by the expectations of proper genteel society. This was radical for American art.
Despite its provocative subject, however, Sloan refrained from overt social commentary or critique. Even though he was personally involved with radical politics, Sloan's paintings generally lacked the social criticism that was the main goal for some of The Eight. Rather than showing city life through a single lens, Sloan's works are often morally ambiguous. According to John Loughery, for Sloan "...the city encompassed squalor and exuberance at one and the same time, and that moments of anguish and exhilaration were not antithetical but necessarily linked, or not so much overlapping as entwined."
Perhaps influenced by the unconventional background of his wife, Dolly, who had worked in a brothel, Sloan is often sympathetic to working women. Specifically in this work, the historian Thomas J. Gilfoyle claims that Sloan's representations of these prostitutes are more human, and that, "instead of depicting the prostitute in a brothel or as an offering for the supporting male, Sloan presented her as she presented herself and her neighborhood. The prostitute was, in essence, an ordinary woman."