Sloan and artist Norman Rockwell

Sloan pre-dates Norman Rockwell, they both satirise modern life in America during their relevant periods. However, Rockwell focuses very much on middle America, whereas Sloan is looking at the working classes. They both share an incredible eye for detail and observation of life.

Anonymous visitor contribution.

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People watching

It must have been very cold! Sloan loves people watching and observes every detail that is happening around him.

Anonymous visitor contribution.

If you would like to share a comment or viewpoint of your own, please do get in touch.

Tension

John Sloan’s New York City Life series captures a web of contrasting physical forces. In The Show Case he draws a direct visual comparison: the corseted mannequin on the left is perfectly replicated by the figure of the lady on the right, both torsos tense and restricted in form. Sloan places the contrastingly free-flowing figures and clothing of the young girls between these two bound bodies. The girls’ variously-directed gazes link the wealthy lady with her inanimate counterpart, and engage and implicate us, the viewers.

Another variant of the static and constricted silhouette enters the private sphere of The Women’s Page. The smooth style of the newspaper’s line-drawn illustration contrasts with Sloan’s dense cross-hatching and the clutter of the apartment, slovenly in its loosely-draped appearance. The reader’s bare feet are exposed, her right toe tensed, curling inwards as she absorbs the page. This minute but highly relatable physical articulation complements the lived-in feel of the apartment. The contrast between ideal and real female form, comical on the sidewalk of The Show Case, evokes a sense of the unattainable in Sloan’s juxtaposition of the stylised newspaper etching and the woman in her nightgown and cluttered domestic space.

Look closely at how Sloan poses subjects and objects in each etching; their varying states of tension and slackness interact, uniting the portfolio in its evocation of urban dissonance. In Man, Wife and Child, the couple brace against each other, as suspenders, boots, collar and shirt are unbuttoned, their structure and purpose discarded. Elbows bend angrily and reins tighten to avoid the leaping musician in Man Monkey. Craning his neck up awkwardly, a man voyeuristically watches one of many inert sleeping figures in Roofs, Summer Night.

 

Peggy Jones (BA English Literature)

Glass

Just as a pane of glass refracts and warps an image glimpsed through it, so Sloan’s etchings are seen through the voyeuristic and intimate practices of window-gazing. Connoisseurs of Print, Sloan’s depiction of affluent art collectors, not only presents its wall-mounted pictures as hung, framed windows through which to stare but also foregrounds the pince-nez wearing attendees, introducing further lenses and ‘glasses’ through which art and life are seen. There seems to be a mutual relationship between artworks and windows in Sloan’s work, with the careful framing of his subjects and his telling use of foreground space positioning his own audience as spectators – with or without pince-nez spectacles.

In New York street scenes such as Fifth Avenue Critics and Man Monkey, Sloan’s subtle suggestion of windows in the background implies, through minimal detail, the city’s continuation. The only defining feature of much of his architecture is the outline of a frame, ledge or balcony that serves to carry our gaze beyond the immediate scene. Sloan encourages viewers to imagine further scenes of New York city life framed and visible in every window, behind every pane of glass, in the sprawling metropolis beyond.

Elsewhere the ornate glass box of The Show Case and peephole viewers on the Mutoscope motion picture devices in Fun, One Cent, depict lenses and windows as  forms of advertising and commercial entertainment. Sloan’s etchings respond to this dynamic by becoming windows themselves, revealing urban scenes at once private and public, intimate and chaotic – all open for viewing.

 

William Carroll (MA English Literature and Culture)

Social observation: visitor response to the display

Wonderful, highly skilled and entertaining social observation. I laughed out loud at some. Also appreciated the fascinating depiction of New York life.

Visitor contribution, by CS. 

If you would like to share a comment or viewpoint of your own, please do get in touch.

 

Social Circle

I get the overall impression that Sloan was intrigued by the lives and goings-on of people outside of his social circle.

There is a feeling of great empathy and lots of humour.

I love it!

Visitor contribution, by Russ B. 

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A few thoughts from a visitor

Sloan describes (in his diary of 1906) Lower East Side streets fill of healthy, happy children.

He signed the women’s page – from his New York City Life series – later on.

A visitor’s interpretation of John Sloan’s ‘New York City Life’ prints on display in the Barber’s current exhibition. Author wishes to remain anonymous. If you would like to share a comment or viewpoint of your own, please do get in touch.

Women

Women are a strong and recurring presence in New York City Life. They feature in every print and take on different roles depending on the scene. Women are protagonists in seven of the prints, dominating the scene and attracting the viewers’ attention even if there are male figures surrounding or accompanying them. This is evident in Fifth Avenue Critics and The Little Bride where male figures seem secondary to their female companions, going against the grain of the male-dominated society of the early 1900s.

Fifth Avenue Critics
‘Fifth Avenue Critics’ by John Sloan, 1905-6, etching. The Henry Barber Trust, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham. © Delaware Art Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS) NY

Sloan was surrounded by strong women, including his mother and sisters and especially his wife Dolly (1876-1943), who was a vocal and visible suffragist and prominent member of the New York Socialist Party’s Women’s Committee. He would come to admire powerful women including the pioneering dancer Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) and the anarchist leader Emma Goldman (1869-1940), and to make cartoons for The Masses magazine that expressed the proto-feminist issues of the era.

man wife and child
‘Man, Wife, and Child’ by John Sloan, 1905-6, etching. The Henry Barber Trust, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham. © Delaware Art Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS) NY

Sloan’s admiration for and pictorial emphasis on women is also evident in the etchings where they do not dominate. In Connoisseurs of Prints women are hard to distinguish from the gallery-going crowd but can be seen taking active roles in conversations and connoisseurship and so challenging male domination of the public sphere. Roofs, Summer Night presents another public space in which men and women sleep, talk and gaze at one another on seemingly equal terms, while in the modest domestic interior of Man, Wife, and Child Sloan celebrates the intimate dance of a couple who appear in step with one another and evenly matched.

 

Amanda Griggio (MA by Research in English Literature)

Class

Sloan explores the social issues of importance within the 19th / 20th century of class, power, struggle and lifestyles. Through etchings and foreboding lines, shapes and form, Sloan exemplifies the social differences and draws from humorous origins to criticise or contrast the present day’s political correctness.

A visitor’s interpretation of John Sloan’s ‘New York City Life’ prints on display in the Barber’s current exhibition. Author wishes to remain anonymous. If you would like to share a comment or viewpoint of your own, please do get in touch.

Texture

Sloan’s etchings characteristically emphasise the visual texture of city life. Across the portfolio he uses the etched line, and the visual textures it creates, to emphasise the difference between the lived, affectual, experience of the city, and its existence as a physical mass.

man wife child
‘Man, Wife and Child’ by John Sloan, 1905-6, etching. The Henry Barber Trust, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham. © Delaware Art Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS) NY

In Man, Wife, and Child, the thick, dark outlines of the husband and wife suggest the intense energy and movement of their embrace. Behind them, the dark tenement room lies in dim shadow, the dense cross-hatching heavily suggesting the indistinct, oppressive presence of the city, and juxtaposing the vitality of its inhabitants. Similarly, in The Little Bride, the bride, depicted through light, curling strokes, embodies a fleeting movement mirrored in the confetti thrown behind her. In this way, her figure contrasts the driving linearity of the cross-hatched steps down which she descends, emerging from the rough solidity of the engraved city as a figure of human optimism.

bride
‘The Little Bride (New York City Life Series)’ by John Sloan, 1905-6, etching. The Henry Barber Trust, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham. © Delaware Art Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS) NY

A similar contrast is observable in Roofs, Summer Nights. The gentle languorous curves of the sleepers’ bodies appear in blank, illuminated opposition to the rough heavily etched darkness which surrounds and engulfs them. Through these oppositions, through etched line and texture, Sloan creates and sustains a profound sense of shared human isolation in the city.

summer roofs
‘Roofs, Summer Night (New York City Life Series)’ by John Sloan, 1905-6, etching. The Henry Barber Trust, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham. © Delaware Art Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS) NY

William Bateman (MA English Literature and Culture)