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Seeing the City: Sloan's New York Opens at The Smart Museum
John Sloan, Spring Rain, 1912, Oil on canvas, Delaware Art Museum, Gift of the John Sloan Memorial Foundation, 1986.

CHICAGO.- John Sloan’s images of New York helped define the city in the popular imagination. In gritty depictions of urban life, Sloan celebrated the metropolis of New York by focusing on street scenes, elevated trains, public spaces, and the lives of ordinary Americans. Yet Sloan’s vision was a subjective one, tied to his particular observations of the neighborhoods in which he lived and the individuals he encountered. More than a series of distinct locations, Sloan’s images of New York reflect the artist’s own movement through and experience of the city.

On Thursday, May 22, 2008, from 5:30 to 7:30 pm, Seeing the City: Sloan’s New York opens at the Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, with a reception and talk by the exhibition curators Joyce K. Schiller, Curator, and Heather Campbell Coyle, Associate Curator, both of the Delaware Art Museum. Organized by the Delaware Art Museum, the exhibition gathers together a wealth of material in all media from 1900 to the 1930s—on loan from various public and private collections—in order to demonstrate the correlation between where Sloan created his art and what he depicted. Seeing the City maps Sloan’s New York, locating precisely the sites portrayed in his work and examining the personal meaning tied to the places he chose to depict again and again.

From 1892 until 1904, John Sloan (1871–1951) worked as an artist at Philadelphia newspapers and contributed illustrations to magazines. In 1904, Sloan moved to New York City, determined to pursue a career as a painter. Sloan’s paintings of New York centered on his favorite subject: the “drab, shabby, happy, sad, and human life” of a city and its people. But this vision of ordinary people did not always prove popular with the art establishment, and Sloan’s works and the works of his colleagues were often rejected from juried exhibitions. In 1908, Sloan and his circle organized a protest exhibition at Macbeth Galleries. This show brought together the work of several Philadelphia artists—John Sloan, Robert Henri, William Glackens, George Luks, and Everett Shinn—as well as the work of Arthur B. Davies, Maurice Prendergast, and Ernest Lawson. The show was a surprising success, and earned the group a nickname, “The Eight.”

Reviews of The Eight exhibition were mixed. Critics who disapproved of their choice of subject matter—such as alleys and tenements—labeled these artists the “Ashcan School,” a term the artists disliked. While many critics challenged the anti-academic approach taken by Sloan and others like him, forward thinking modernists praised their work as a refreshing departure from styles and subjects with little relevance to modern life.

In the wake of The Eight exhibition, Sloan became a public figure in the New York art world, helping to organize important exhibitions, including the 1911 Exhibition of Independent Artists and the 1913 Armory Show, a display of American and European modernist art. Together these exhibitions altered the course of American art produced in the twentieth century. Sloan also served as president of the Society of Independent Artists for more than twenty years.

Sloan taught sporadically within various art schools until 1916, when he became a full-time faculty member at the Art Students League in New York, a position he would hold until 1937. His students included the young talents of sculptor David Smith and Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock. In 1939 Sloan’s teaching philosophy and techniques were compiled and published in the book called Gist of Art. Based in part upon the notes Sloan’s student Helen Farr took in his classes and gathered over the years, Gist of Art allowed subsequent generations to learn from him. A year after the death of his wife, Dolly, Sloan married Helen Farr in 1944.

Focusing on John Sloan’s images of New York City in paintings, drawings, prints, and photographs, Seeing the City presents an in-depth view of the artist’s years in the city and the city’s effect on his art. Far from glamorizing the emerging vertical vistas of sky-scrapers, Sloan focused instead on people, public spaces, street life, elevated trains, and the pedestrian experience. The Delaware Art Museum organized this exhibition, drawing on the abundance of material in its own art and archival collections supplemented by loans from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, and various other public and private collections.

By bringing together numerous images in all media from 1904 through the 1930s, Seeing the City is the first major traveling exhibition to focus on Sloan’s depictions of New York and the first since the 1970s to present significant new scholarship on the artist. This exhibition is also the first to isolate Sloan’s vision from that of his Ashcan School colleagues in order to explore his individual contribution.

As Sloan moved through the vast and rapidly changing metropolis, he made sense of it by describing—in his diaries, letters, and pictures—the streets, squares, gathering places, and city dwellers he encountered. He created a “pedestrian aesthetic,” helping to define New York City in the popular imagination and creating what one critic called the “slang” of the city.

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