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.
If you would like to share a comment or viewpoint of your own, please do get in touch.
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.
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)
Our presence or position as viewers is one of the key features of Sloan’s prints. The artist captures a perspective that makes the viewer feel integrated within the dynamic lifestyles of the varied classes of New York, and yet, by the same stroke, utilises other points of view to detach the viewer from the scene. New York is rendered in such a way as to be seen but unknowable, and the viewer is part of the mystery.
This effect is best understood in The Little Bride, in which, Sloan, by presenting a ceremony of unity – a wedding – does well to remind the viewer of their alien presence. The bride, the focal point of the scene on whom almost all eyes are trained, sends her own gaze back towards the viewer. Her expression is one of partial recognition, only half-noticing what she is looking at – besides she’s in motion, she’ll be gone in just a moment. But then, right below her, one notices a small boy in a cap, static and staring at the viewer. This kid poses two questions: Why is he looking at me? And, what am I missing?
In The Show Case, too, the viewer’s presence and position seems uncertain. The school-aged girl at the front of her group is looking at once ahead, and also at the case on her right. She’s running onward, but her face is rendered to suggest an inward gaze. Perhaps this is where Sloan wanted the viewer to be?
To describe Sloan’s etchings as noisy is, if anything, an understatement. The prints clamour with contrasting tones and shades, lively crowds of people, and dynamic movement, and each one contains the suggestion of specific sounds that the viewer, reader, or perhaps listener, is encouraged to hear.
In Turning Out the Light we can almost hear the flick of the switch that casts the couple into darkness; in The Little Bridethe cheers of the crowd rain over the newly-weds. In The Connoisseurs of Printshushed tones reverberate, with the gentleman in the foreground tilting his ear presumably to hear his friend’s comment. Man Monkey is one of the loudest prints, with the physical vibrations of sound represented as both light and shade appear to emanate from the drum. The blinkered horse rears up, braying, alarmed by all the noise.
More subtly The Women’s Pageinsinuates the sounds of the street, with lines in the etching moving away from the open window to suggest a room flooded not just with light but with a wave of sound also. Where the playful child explores the sensory limits of the room with fingers outstretched and ear positioned towards the source of the noise, his mother, with her ear in shade, turns from the audio-visual phenomena of the street to her newspaper. In contrast to this moment of silent absorption, our readings of Sloan’s etchings are filled with noisy possibilities, if we only pay attention to how they sound.
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 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.
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.
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)