Work of the Week – November 18, 2013
by Adrian Etheridge
John French Sloan (1871-1951), a leading promoter of the “social realist” movement, was one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. An etcher and painter, Sloan’s earliest surviving works were created when he was 16-years-old. He had left school in his hometown of Lock Haven, Pennsylvania to support his family by working in a bookstore that sold fine prints – an environment that allowed him to read books and examine artwork. Through his career, Sloan had trouble finding work, and he initially failed to make it as a commercial freelance artist. Embittered by the art world, in 1908 he and seven other young painters (called The Eight) embarked on a rebellious plan to put on an “anti-academic, egalitarian, no-jury, no-prize show” organized by fellow artist Robert Henri. In 1918 Sloan became president of the Society of Independent Artists and served in the position until his death in 1951.
When he and his first wife, Dolly, moved to New York in 1901, John Sloan began looking to his shabby and bohemian neighborhood for inspiration. With no shortage of interesting characters to portray, Sloan conceived his New York City Life etching series to portray “snapshots” of the urban scene. As Sloan said, in selecting the scenes for his etchings he was providing insights into human life.
As an art student, I have spent a lot of time examining and critiquing art work, and I greatly enjoy Sloan’s work The Picture Buyer, an etching from his 1911 New York City Life collection. This image focuses predominately on the faces of the three main characters while somehow almost blurring out the rest, an impressive accomplishment in a work made only of black lines and white spaces. This piece is dynamic. The implied lines of the men’s gazes lead viewers from man to man showing their tense conversation. Sloan’s technique brings the audience in to examine the scene in more depth.
As a photographer, I appreciate Sloan’s work for his aptitude as an etcher and painter to achieve the same snapshot-like ability to capture a moment that photography has. In particular, Sloan captures quite a bit of emotion. Set in the Macbeth Gallery (where he and The Eight held their famous exhibit), The Picture Buyer shows a beleaguered buyer sitting while a gallery assistant shows him painting after painting. Another man, possibly the gallery owner, breathes down the buyer’s neck, most likely enticing him to purchase a piece. In his precise hatched and cross-hatched lines, Sloan is able to simultaneously convey the assistant’s anxiousness to show the elderly gentleman a painting he likes, the owner’s smarminess describing the beauty of the displayed painting, and the onlookers’ interest. The buyer’s haughty expression does not reveal as much as the others’, but as Sloan describes the man as a “victim” in his inscription on an earlier draft, we can guess that the gentleman is probably weary of the enticements from the gallery men. Given Sloan’s disdain for the art world because of his often uncertain financial situation and ability to sell work, it is safe to say that this piece may be a critique of the art market.
Artwork above: John Sloan, The Picture Buyer, 1911, Etching, 5.13 x 6.75 inches. Museum purchase with funds provided by 2007 Collectors’ Circle Members David Moltke-Hansen, Patricia Poteat, Gail and Brian McCarthy. Permanent Collection. 2007.30.63.