Artist and author, WALTER PACH was born in New York City in 1883, studied at the New York School of Art and at the Academic Hanson in Paris, and in addition to his one-man shows has exhibited with the Independent Artists yearly since 1917. The biographer of Georges Seurat, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Van Gogh, and Ingres and the author of widely read studies on modern art. Mr. Pach now evaluates for Atlantic readers the life and work of John Sloan — his versatility, his dedication, his contribution to American art.
by WALTER PACH
I SHALL not attempt to say how great an artist, was John Sloan. As a friend for forty-seven years and having a warm recollection of his geniality, his courage, and his loyalty — to ideas and to men — I am perhaps disqualified, even, from saying that he was a great artist; the future alone can be authoritative on that point. But I can say that, his was a lifelong adherence to the principle of seeking the truth, independent of any influence from accepted ideas, his own as well as other people’s. And, at the very least, that means that he had one of the most important things in common with the masters of the great periods. Sometimes they gained fame and money through their work while still alive, sometimes they did not. Hut no one judges them on such a basis; what counts is their success with their art. In a time like ours, when standards are confused and very great men have had to wait long for recognition (even so small a part of it. as would ensure daily bread), Sloan held that “to become a painter, one should not expect to make a living from painting; to remain independent an artist has to work for a living at some trade, like bricklaying.”
Though a well-trained and professional artist at the age of twenty, he did not sell a picture till he was forty-two, and could not live by the sale of his paintings till he was seventy-three. When voting artists would complain about such condit ions to old John Butler Yeats, that great friend of Sloan’s would reply, “Then go on and do something honest, like digging a ditch.” That occupation, or the bricklaying proposed by Sloan himself, was spared him through his gift for illustrating. A whole group of our most talented men, fifty or sixty years ago, gained a livelihood by illustrating, which then permitted more of serious eflorl than it does now. But. the field became increasingly commercialized, as was said by one of the best of these artists, William J. Chickens, who gave the fact as his reason for abandoning a line of work for which he cared greatly, as many a fine artist has done.
It would be absurd to think of Sloan as averse to earning his living by his brush in those early and middle years. On the contrary, he made every effort to reach the public with the best of his production. His etchings, at this time, were not only among his finest expressions but, because of their low price, were within the reach of hundreds, even thousands, of Americans. Yet when the artist brought out a circular, generously illustrated with photographs of his etchings, the people to whom he mailed it did not respond with enough money to cover his expenses of printing and platemaking.
So the alternative to living by his art was “some trade like bricklaying,” as he had found out through his own experience. To be sure, there was another alternative, though not for him. The other choice was to sugar his work to the taste of the large numbers of people who are always ready to pay for such production. With Sloan’s native skill, the only obstacle to such a course was his character; but fort unatoly for all of us, t hat was an insu|ie ruble obstacle. He never even thought of overcoming it: he was an artist, a truth-seeker, and the lie of the thing erroneously called popular art was completely outside any conception of life that was possible to him.
With his inexhaustible belief in human beings, and with his great love for the life and look of American cities, Sloan had the requisites for an illustrator of the first rank, especially as his hand was phenomenally prompt in rendering the images that came before his mind. They might be started there by a telephone call to the newspaper he was working on. In the days before the photographer and phot oengra ver replaced the old newspaper artists through even more rapid reporting, Sloan was one of the men who could illustrate the story of a murder, a political meeting or other “hot feature,” by a drawing that brought it before the eyes of the reader more vividly than words could do.
In the office of the Philadelphia Press Sloan worked side by side with three other artists who were to attain fame as painters: George Luks, Everett Shinn, and William Glackens. In 1945 the Philadelphia Museum recalled the work of those days by devoting an exhibition to the four men on the staff of the old Press, once the most important newspaper in the city but which had been absorbed by the Philadelphia Public Ledger a quarter of a century before. For the introduction to the catalogue of the show, Sloan could write that “Glackens was certainly the greatest draughtsman who lived tins side of the ocean. He could draw anything he wanted to in any way he wanted to. He had the ability to bring back mentally what was an emotional state. His drawings of New York streets, tenements, fire escapes, pushcarts, people, were full of incidents and more alive than life could ever be. He would make a drawing over and over again until he got what he really wanted. He was never satisfied.”
Sloan himself made rapid jottings on chance bits of paper, from which he arrived at a finished production; they were to serve him, also, throughout the years to come when, instead of newspaper drawings, his observations from nature were translated into full-scale paintings. When he spoke of a painter’s safeguarding his independence through living from a trade, he was not spinning theories out of moonshine: he was offering a procedure he had followed out himself during the years of a newspaper office’s grueling drive.
THE future that Sloan imagined for this country and its artists lies in the realm of the intangible, but Sloan’s painting and etching are existing things, the accumulation of a man who had worked indefatigably since his boyhood.
Born at Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, in 1871, he was brought to Philadelphia six years later, lie left high school at the age of sixteen and began to earn in order to help support his family, after his father had suffered a failure in business. At firsl he worked as an assistant to the cashier of a bookstore. Soon he was supplementing his salary by ihe sale of pen-and-ink copies of Rembrandt etchings and by his production of valentines with verses and colored drawings. A short time later, he was attending a night class in freehand drawing at the Spring Garden Institute. Within a year he was ready to rent a small studio on Walnut Street, and had three drawings accepted by Judge, the old comic weekly. A year later, he was regularly at work on a newspaper; in 1895 he began a most important association with the Philadelphia Press which he continued for many years.
Meanwhile he had met Robert Henri and had formed what was to be his closest friendship with any man. Six years his senior, Ilenri had been to Paris and had brought back ideas of art and life which Sloan was prepared to accept. Together, and in association with Glackens and others of the “old Philadelphia bunch,” they went on in their investigations of the philosophy and technique of art, with Henri s inspiring personality and ideas acting as the chief stimulus to new effort. When Sloan moved to New York in 1904, Henri helped him not merely along artistic but also material lines.
An ideal of both men was Wall Whitman, and it would be easy to trace one connection after another between the work of the poet and that of the two painters. Specifically, one might mention the similarity of mood and the response to Manhattan’s salt-water front in Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and Sloan’s often reproduced painting, The Wake of the Perry, But more important than such parallels is the general matter of their response to the modern American city. It was ugly to the eyes of “the young men who never get back from Paris” (in their minds — even when physically they have returned to America); it was exhilarating and indeed beautiful to Walt W hitman, who saw in it the birth of new triumphs of the mind and of art.
Coming from Philadelphia, where so many memories of the past cling to old houses, streets, and squares, Sloan was intoxicated with the life and movement of New York. His studio on Twentythird Street was between two of those elevated railway lines that have been the horror of many a visitor to the city and to even more of its residents. Almost all gone now, they certainly did cause a fearful noise, darkness over their streets, and - in the days before they used electricity—a lot of dirt from their smoke and steam. Yet they offered to Sloan a subject unknown to the artists of the past, and some of the finest of his early pictures are of the Elevated as it winds through the city, the lights on the train standing out dramatically against the evening sky, or the shadow beneath the structure telling as a splendid background for the moving figures of men and women who appear suddenly from darkened space.
It was the stupidest of criticism that greeted the work of Sloan and the others who represented such scenes and who were therefore assailed as “The Ashcan School.” There was nothing in common between what is new, stirring, and human in American cities, when seen by a sympathetic eye, and the garbage receptacle which the critics — incited by certain painters — took as the symbol of the new men. Carl Sandburg was none too vehement, in one of Ins poems, when he swore at the people who are blind to the splendor of t he waterfront of Chicago. The Parthenon Chari res Cat hedraL They are marvelous, unquestionably, but the sun that glorifies them or the rain that envelops them in its veil can make of our most “sordid" city views a spectacle of thrilling beauty. Our forests of tall buildings are still a source of astonishment to Europeans, and countless Americans also can admire their originality and the genius for construction they reveal.
But the humbler aspecls of our cities are more human than the skyscrapers. A photograph of one or a group of the latter brings a gasp over their size, their cost, their elevator service, the number of persons they accommodate, and so on and so on. liul to use them as subject matter for art is something else. Later in life, Sloan used to say that he preferred to paint girls who were not so beautiful as to tempt an artist to make a mere copy of his model.
Degas followed a similar line of reasoning when he told why he wanted to depict laundresses, fat women in bathtubs, ballet girls with their legs reaching for the practice bar or with their meager forms crouched together as they tie on their slippers: he said he needl’d themes that had not been exploited bv the so-called classical men, t hose whose bid for success depended on the obvious attractiveness of their subjects. That pitfall of the artist, representation (especially of beautiful women, but also of landscapes and other objects carefully chosen to flatter the taste of the majority), came to be understood for what it is by Sloan as he reflected more deeply on the problem of the artist, liul he had already given proof of an instinctive grasp of the idea when he painted those early city pictures which make us feel the significance inherent in sights to which most people never give a look or a thought.
Intensity in the look and vigor in the thought that Sloan gave to these sights are what characterize his evoealions of the life of New York and what first established his general reputation. The teeming flow of that life, the thousand impacts it made on the mind of ihe artist, caused him to resume the medium of etching, with w hich he already had had experience. It was closely related to the pen drawing of his newspaper days and of his illustrations for those fine magazines, Scribner’s, the Century, and others which we had in earlier years. Etching, also, renewed his attention to the masters of the graphic arts, Rembrandt, Callot and Goya, Daumier, Rewick, and John Leech (a particular favorite of Sloan’s).
But it meant two other things to him. One was that it afforded art lovers of small means a chance to own original works. Rut more important was the fact that etching permitted him to treat a larger number of subjects and to produce more pictures than would have been possible with the complicated. time-consuming processes of painting.
THE etchings which he did from 1905 till his last years contain much of what is most poignant and powerful in his entire work. Among their large number of first-rale successes, one has difficulty in making a choice. My own mind comes back to favorites: Roof-Tops, Summer Night, where sweltering tenement-house dwellers, seen from the artist’s window, gel a troubled sleep under the sky, and one man who lies awake gazes at ihe heavy forms of a near-by matron. Also of lhal intimacy which Sloan’s hack windows afforded is the scene entitled Turniny Out the Liyht. A woman in nightdress is reaching toward the gas jet, her healthy, bare arm extended in a gesture whose beauty we recognize because it agrees with the instinct developed within us by the masters of figure drawing in all periods. Such an influence from one of our noblest traditions, even if an unconscious influence, is again to be seen in the artist’s later etchings of tin* figure. Direct study of the nude preoccupied Sloan increasingly, as time went on.
The intimaev and the strength in his picturing of the great city, its drama and its humor, won for him a public of his own, small at first, but always growing in number. Had that been its one characteristic, all would have been well. Rut too many people, having found what they instinctively wanted, refused to go ahead and that was what Sloan simply had to do. Or, since those words imply purpose, we may heller say that to stand still and repeat past performances was something he could not do. For explanation on that point, we need to give a glance at modern art, and also at things outside the problems of picture-making. We return, then, to Sloan’s thought as to the relation of his profession with the public, one of his major interests throughout his career. The ivory tower may be a fine ret real from the turmoil of the city, just as a studio on ‘Twenty-third Street may be a line place for studying that turmoil. Rut whether a man chooses the still waters of the world or its torrent (to recall a contrast of elements grandly established by Goethe), he is very nearly defective if he does not want --nay, demand — a contact between his work and his fellow men.
For the artist, such eontacl comes through exhibit ions and through the placing of his product in homes and museums. But the channels through which the artist normally reaches the public were very badly clogged up in the first decade of the present century. It was necessary to break new ground. Three big efforts, in which Sloan shared conspicuously, were the chief means for obtaining such a result. I refer to the exhibition of “The Eight.** (so named from (he number of artists composing the group — and (hey were about the best of the forward-looking painters that this country had in 1908), the famous Armory Show of 19PJ, and the Society of Independent Artists, lounded in 1910. Chickens was the first president of this organization, with Sloan succeeding him a year afterward and holding the position until his death,
I give these bare details in the history of American art, not for their relation to that subject, but for the light they a (Ford as to the ideas and character of the mail we are discussing. The amount of time and hard work he put in on these exhibitions, and others, was simply enormous. The reason for it was his insight into American conditions, the relationship of our artists and public, and his belie! in both groups. 1 Jet ter understanding between them was one of our important needs, one that every museum is striving to deal with today. A healthy accord on this point will quite surely bring about better American art and better American use of art. The future of John Sloan, the future he envisaged, was chiefly based on such utility for the men of his profession.
AND still we have given no more than a glance to the essential matter of Sloan’s career, his art. The change from newspaper and magazine work to painting and etching was, in large degree, a matter of changing his medium of expression. A new period began in 1919 when he first saw New (Mexico, where, until the year of his death, all but one of his subsequent summers were spent. What justifies one in claiming an important change for this period of Sloan’s is a new sense of landscape and a new realization of aesthetic values.
Previously he had spent five summers at Gloucester, Massachusetts, and had done a good deal of out-of-doors painting there. But it does not have the feeling for his subject that city life aroused in him, nor does it have the technical equipment he was later to seek out. The splendor of the New Mexican desert country aroused an intense response from him, but his growing acquaintance with the life and art of the Indians was an even greater influence. First came his enthusiasm for the tribal dances, among the most impressive examples of an art practiced by and for a whole people. Despite pressure — conscious or unconscious — by while men, the tenacious religion and culture of the Southwestern Indian continue to express themselves in these communions with the spirit of the earth, the sun, the animals, the lightning and the rain. Of the ceremonies which thus carry on the ancient ideas of the people, Sloan has left some admirable representations.
But Indian art has other aspects. The Navahos, with their sand painting, can show us works as beautiful as they are original: related to them are the blankets, and the pottery with its stirring imagery and patterns. Each pueblo has its own character, even if marked by no more than tlie form, color, and texture of its ceramics. With these qualities — of a type we are now apt to call abstract— the message of the Southwest was seen by Sloan to have something in common with that of the most modern men of Europe.
Like numbers of other artists here, he had had his first important contact with modern art when his pictures hung at the Armory Show, in rooms adjoining those devoted to Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse, and the C ubists. Ilis final judgment on that exhibition was rendered in his words, “It’s life itself.” For the time being, it was a life he could not enter, as far as concerns the central conception expressed by the modern men. He did not try to hasten his approach to such a conception by going to Paris, as so many American artists did when they came to realize the great changes in art ideas due to French painters and sculptors.
Indeed, Sloan never visited Europe at all. Various writers have stressed the fact as proof of his American quality — surely a very tenuous proof, in view of the wealth of European art in our museums and exhibitions, and in view of its influence on Sloan, who in his earlier painting recalls that of Hals, Velasquez, and Manet, and who later experimented with various types of glazing, under the inspiration of men like Titian and Rembrandt. ‘Phe acceptance of ideas traditional in Europe, which we have just noted in his youth and middle age, are far less significant than fiis response to the modern movement when he had thought through to its essentials. Not just once but many times did he express his conclusion on the subject. It was that the moderns, from Cezanne onward, have restored to the world the true character that painting had in its early periods, a character that was abandoned by “optical art, Sloans term for the decadent work of so many nineteenth-century men. He specified the masters of that period who, despite all, had defied surrender to abject copying of what the eye perceives, as opposed to what the mind marks as reality. Concerning that last word, he was proud to think of himself as a realist.
In the quiet of his summers at Santa Fe, he could think over the questions that seethed in Paris and — more and more — in New York, where the “revolutionary” movement of tho moderns was triumphantly displacing the outworn formulas of the academic schools. But, we may ask, was Sloan not academic himself, by this time? He had never given up his observing of nature and re-presenting her aspects as he saw them. So the answer to this question resides in the fact that he portrayed what he saw for himself and did not copy either nature or what other men had seen. That completely clears him of having “gone over to the majority” (the dead), the charge leveled at him by youngsters who had reached no more than the threshold of modem art. To quote Matisse’s words for such people, “they were forgetting Cézanne.”
“The primitive of the way he found,” as Cezanne called himself, he never had the beginning of a doubt that painting has a steady historical development; and his constant citation of his authorities Tintoretto, Poussin, Delacroix, and others — proves that he knew and followed the traditions of his craft better than did his contemporaries. This recognition of tradition is what we are forever discovering about the great French “innovators.” And that is what the younger men here were ignorant of when they began to look on Sloan as old school — a term applicable only to weak artists, never to strong ones. It is not comparing Sloan with Cezanne if we note that both insisted on form, in the sense of rendering solids and their planes. Nor was Sloan attempting to be a Pueblo Indian when he contended for the expression of ideas. We have heard him state his conclusion that modern art renews our hold on the essentials of the classics ("our classics,” as Diego Rivera added, in order to emphasize the contribution of ancient America to our heritage from Europe). And with as little or as much as each artisl needs of naturalism in his work, the essentials of the classics have always included expression and form as matters of the very first importance.
Sloan insisted on them in teaching, and they were the special ideal of his own work. In his last years, when he was freed from financial pressure and from any concern with visual phenomena (an inevitable concern at first for one educated during the nineteenth century), two new — or greatly strengthened—elements appeared in his work. He said that he had not had much chance in earlier life to paint from the nude — and now he was going to make up for that. The result was an intensified rendering of what makes of the human body the marvel that it is, finer than the body of the animal because of the brain to which humans respond. And in many a portrait done by Sloan in these years, the same holds true.
The other element in his later work might seem a matter for technical, professional discussion rather than one for a general public. That is not true in the case of a public interested in art, one that remembers to differentiate between ihe manner of presentation and the matter presented, whether that subject matter be nudes, portraits, Indian dances, or The Sidewalks of Sew York, that old t une which people wanted Sloan to keep on singing. He still loved New York, and said that each summer when he went away, as his health and his work demanded, he regretted the hot days of the past when he saw the city people come out in the open air and walk and talk and make love in a way he could not so well observe during the winter when they were indoors. The expression of their minds, for which he had done so much in the time when he was primarily an illustrator, was now enriched by a clearer expression of his mind.
Always a believer in a linear technique, he used to say that the only real abstraction achieved by artists is line, since it, unlike color or light and shade, does not exist in nature. Thus it was in character for him to use what be called his linear glaze in order to diversify the texture of his paintings, to accent passages of color, and to reinforce eflects of form. His friends would sometimes tremble when he started to apply this new type of finish to pictures that had looked well enough before he added his line work. Sometimes, quite surely, losses of valuable qualities did come about. But he knew what he was doing, and nearly all of the best pictures of his eighty years are those in which he incorporated this final advance in his technique.
At eighty, his mind was of undiminished clearness and vigor, as will be seen from the work he began in that last summer of his life at Hanover, New Hampshire. Santa Fe had been wonderful, but he was ready to stay in the East again. Dartmouth College, whose president, John Sloan Dickey, was a relative of his, had given him a retrospective exhibition when he was seventy-five, and now he was returning there, to build a house at Hanover. A studio would naturally be its dominating feature, and the last drawing he ever made was of the home that he was planning for his old age.
That time was not to come. A memorial article in the Hanover Gazette says: “When he saw Maxfield Parrish this summer, whom he hadn’t seen since 18f)8, Parrish said to him: ‘When we reach our age, we should live as if we had thirty years more to live. That is the way that John Sloan had always lived, and it accounts for his great productivity during a long and often hard life.” The difficulties of his earlier days, when the “hard life” was largely due to lack of money, were less dangerous than organic troubles that forced him, at later times, to undergo several very serious operations. Some years before his death people feared that ho was about to die. He himself did not fear that, but he bitterly resented it. “I’ve got work to do” was his angry complaint. Considering the way America has always looked to the future, those words of his are perhaps what tell best how American the man was. Since he himself always looked ahead to that work which he was forever starting anew, and since the work is the essential thing about John Sloan, we may also look to his future — and with confidence.