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American Artist John Sloan's Satirical Style to be Explored in New Exhibition
Fifth Avenue Critics, 1905, John Sloan (1871–1951), etching, state 10 of 11, 5 x 7 in. From the New York City Life series. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, partial and promised gift of Gary, Brenda, and Harrison Ruttenberg.

SAN MARINO, CA.- Raucous behavior and silly plot twists take center stage in a selection of satirical etchings by artist John Sloan (1871–1951) on view in the Chandler Wing of the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens from Oct. 24, 2009 to Feb. 1, 2010.

From 1902 to 1905, Sloan created 53 etchings to illustrate comic novels by French author Charles Paul de Kock (1793­–1871). About three dozen of those etchings as well as related prints, drawings, and books will be on view in the exhibition “Drawn to Satire: John Sloan’s Illustrations for the Novels of Charles Paul de Kock.”

De Kock’s satires of French society in the first half of the 19th century were full of slapstick antics and made a perfect subject for Sloan’s lively etching style of short, expressive lines and loose cross-hatching. The project also seemed to inspire Sloan to look at 20th-century New Yorkers with the same satirical eye that de Kock trained on 19th-century Parisians. In the years directly following his work on the illustrations, Sloan produced a number of etchings featuring humorous vignettes of life in the streets, parks, tenements, and taverns of the busy metropolis. He went on to become a prominent member of the band of urban realist artists known as the Ashcan school.

Drawn from the promised gift of John Sloan material to The Huntington from Gary, Brenda, and Harrison Ruttenberg, the exhibition sheds light on an important, but little known, aspect of Sloan’s career.. The Ruttenberg collection is rich in preliminary drawings and early versions of the de Kock illustrations, inviting close study of Sloan’s working methods.

“This provides the perfect window into the making of an artist,” says Kevin Murphy, Bradford and Christine Mishler Associate Curator of American Art at The Huntington. “Sloan’s work on the de Kock novels set the stage for what he did later—the slightly bawdy, flirtatious, comical, and absurd depictions of specific moments between people.”

De Kock’s books were wildly popular in his time, and especially outside of France. Half a century after their first publication, limited editions were produced by the Quinby Publishing Co. of Boston, which contracted with Sloan and others, including fellow Ashcan school artists William Glackens and George Luks. The most extraordinarily luxurious of the editions—the Bibliomaniac—was bound in Moroccan leather and printed on vellum with original drawings in the margins by artists in Sloan’s circle as well as hand painted color decorations throughout. Just one of the books, first on sale in 1903, cost the approximate equivalent of $12,000 in today’s currency; a full set cost $50,000. One of the Huntington’s editions will be on display in the exhibition.

The works on view in “Drawn to Satire” are memorable and often hilarious. The Silent Pie, for instance, depicts a hapless suitor about to woo his companion with a bird he earlier had taught to sing, cleverly hidden beneath a pie crust provided by the chef. In the etching, he is shown displaying the “pie,” about to cue the creature to pop forth and deliver a tune. Unbeknownst to him and his beloved, the chef had made a pivotal mistake: he had dutifully rolled out a pie crust, placed it on the pie dish, and then baked it—along with the bird underneath as well. To drive the point home, Sloan added a small drawing in pencil to The Huntington’s impression of the etching, featuring a bird’s head with crossed bones beneath it.

In The Misplaced Kiss, a gentleman at a dinner party has become enamored of a certain female guest. Having had much to drink, he stumbles toward the door, just as she closes it, on her way home. As he attempts to follow her, he runs smack into the butler coming in, and plants a drunken kiss on the man’s cheek.

In a work that demonstrates how Sloan went on to incorporate what he learned from the de Kock project into his depiction of American urban life, Fifth Avenue Critics, a pair of middle aged women, traveling in an open carriage on a pleasant evening in New York City, look askance at a beautiful, demure, and clearly much younger woman in a carriage heading past them.

“The looks of disapproval are obvious,” says Murphy, “but what makes the work even more hilarious to me is the juxtaposition of one of the women’s faces next to an oncoming horse. There are numerous times in researching this exhibition that I had to stave off my own laughter in the quiet of The Huntington’s research library to keep from disrupting the work of others. As far as satire goes, it just doesn’t get much better than this.”

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