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John Sloan To-Day

ISSUE:  Summer 1925

At a lunch table in one of our great art-museums, the staff of the institution were discussing its problems. One veteran of the half-century struggle to build up worthy collections finally broke out with the question, “Well what’s the good of a museum anyhow?” And though every one of his hearers was devoting his life to some phase of museum work, none had an answer ready. It might be thought that the reason for their silence was that a question so vast and general prevented a reply of merely moderate length. But the talk which had led up to that explosion of doubt had turned around only one point: the incapacity of most students of ancient things to deal with the questions of the present. And it was knowledge of this incapacity that tied the tongues of those earnest men. They flaw the houses of the great collectors filled with the treasure of mediaeval France, of Renaissance Italy, of Holland and Spain in their golden period—and they had memories of the collectors of that treasure when faced with a masterpiece of today, at some exhibition. They heard the poor joke with which they turned their backs on it, or again they saw these men vote some great sum of money, at a trustees’ meeting, when a modern work, misleading—even pernicious—in its influence came up for purchase. The classics? Yes, to be sure. But what is the use of them if they do not teach us to solve the problem that has not come up before? Of course the answer is that the fault is not with the classics themselves, for they are the greatest stimulant to a tussle with new problems; the fault lies with those who cannot stand the heady liquor, and are merely drugged by it into insensibility toward life.

What I have said of collectors applies quite as well to artists. That they need the training afforded by the classics is an unshakably fundamental idea. But what have they to say for themselves afterward? Have we in America any artists who are giving the only proof there is of an effective understanding of art—the proof afforded by the production of art? There are painters and sculptors by the thousand, quite literally, but one feels only too sure that their work is of no more than ephemeral interest. Still, in the great mass of our current production, there are signs, here and there, of such character, such grasp of life and the means of rendering it in terms of the picture that we feel confident in saying “Here is an artist.” It is such confidence that John Sloan inspires. He is no newcomer,— more than a quarter century of valid work is behind him, even if we start with the painting in which he has already struck his note; and it is not the opinion of a narrow circle that one voices in affirming the importance of his art. True, it has not attained the widest popularity, and perhaps it never will. It is too frank for that, too uncompromising in its search for the realities. As a rule, men ask from art an idealized world, where some touch of sentiment, some ironing out of the wrinkles and asperities of life affords an illusion of relief from the endless interrogations of circumstance. But the illusion does not last, cling to it as we may; and yet few people will face the fact that real support, strength, pleasure come only from a grasp of things as they are. It is never more than a partial grasp, to be sure, but it grows firmer with the years, and more inclusive. The Museum, with its infinite vistas of the thought of the past, becomes at once richer in delight and more consistent, it offers clearer analogies with the life of the surrounding world—which gains in logic without loss of its mystery.

For John Sloan, the Museum has been rather like those great books which we have in the background of our mind; we know their truth and it guides our general course, but we rarely have occasion to refer to any special page in them. From the first, his habit has been to get the material of his art from the sights around him, the people and streets seen from his window, the station where he goes to take a train, the passengers in the car with him, other people in a restaurant where he eats, idlers who have sat next to him in a city square, the fountain that plays there, or the recruiting sergeant who interviews applicants for the army; or he gets up from the bench where he has been watching the bootblacks, the roller-skaters, and the school girls exchanging secrets, and he follows the crowds going home. He stops to watch the light change back of a tall pile that stands out alone among the three-story houses of a hundred years earlier, and he sees how a purplish haze settles over the city —an elevated train coming out from a crevice in the mass of the buildings like an earth-worm carefully emerging from the ground. He continues his walk past some square where the Italian colony is holding its traditional festa, strolls to the docks where the dark silhouette of a well-laden ferry boat is detaching grandly against the sky, and then has a look at the girls all expectant of an evening of adventure at the public dance-hall that they are entering. Returning home he finds himself in front of Tammany Hall; it is election time and a big banner spans Fourteenth Street, making a royal expanse of reds and yellows against the blue of the night sky. That is his picture of the famous political center. Others may write of his history, its influence, its significance, but here is the place that gave birth to it, here is its look for an eye that has seen all the things that go into it and that it responds to. A master of realities has made the city real for us—and it is more rich and mysterious and splendid than we had ever imagined it.

The work of a painter is not confined within the pure sesthetic that treats of the abstract curves of a vase or the abstract color of a rug; neither is it pure idea such as one may apprehend without the use of the eyes. Sometimes half-informed people will add “the illustrator” after mentioning the name of John Sloan, and he has indeed done many hundreds of illustrations for books and magazines. Work of that kind demands a clear representation of the subject, and it is a demand that Mr. Sloan has met wholeheartedly, for much of his delight in his work comes of setting down the appearances of the always interesting world he lives in. But the term illustration is too narrow to describe his pictures, for if it does include the more important phases of representation—the fidelity to the most, intimate viewing of appearances and thus the handling of truths instead of mere facts—the work that we are considering has a wider range. It draws on the qualities of form and color, and has done so increasingly as these basic factors of the painter’s art have come to be more clearly understood in America, where he has spent the whole of his life. Great works were to be seen here from his boyhood, it is true, but we sometimes need to be reminded that the tradition of art is not transported to a new country in the boxes that contained the masterpieces for the new museums. It did come over here, if only on the form of instinct, with the men and women of America, who are as much the heirs of the great tradition of Europe as those other descendants of the classic periods who have remained in the older lands.

To prove statements about the qualities of a given art is extremely difficult, yet something approaching proof of what I have just said of the work of John Sloan exists in the response to it which I have repeatedly witnessed in Paris and among Europeans on a visit to America. The admiration expressed on such occasions was too strong to admit of any hint of a mental reservation in favor of work done in a country whose art was still more or less undeveloped; and the interest of the speakers was not merely in finding pictures so peculiarly American in scene, though that gave pleasure after seeing the vague reminiscences of Europe—the Paris streets, the Italian peasants, and the Dutch wind-mills, that mingle with the professionally American views of factories or crowds, or the landscape which one school of our painters treats with a weak dilution of the lyricism about Nature which the Romanticists of 1830 gave us.

It was more than illustration, then, that the Frenchmen I have in mind saw in Mr. Sloan’s work. Educated by the great galleries, accustomed to the great art that Paris has seen continuing with such uninterrupted abundance, they were not of the class which caused the despair of those museum men I mentioned at the beginning of this article: they were judging contemporary art for its grasp of the qualities that give permanence to the important things of the past. And if there had not been some appreciable trace of the classic qualities of painting in John Sloan’s art, they would not have admired it.

When we observe his development from his first years as an artist, it is clear that his habit of facing the realities of the outer world has been duplicated by the frankness with which he has recognized the insufficiency of his earlier conception of picture-making. There is beauty in the work he did twenty-five years ago, strength and kindness in his statement about people, distinction in the gray tonality that was his approach to color, and vivacity and power in his use of line, of mass, of chiaroscuro. Often it was in the etchings, which he has produced in very considerable number, that his qualities appeared in greatest vigor and clearness. One recalls the “Roof-Tops, Summer Night,” with the crowded forms of the poor people sleeping under the black sky—the rooms of their tenements having become unbearable from the heat. For the sociologist it may be an indictment of the modern city, for the artist its suggestion is of the mystery of space, of the weight of bodies, of the poignancy with which the characters are rendered. In another plate, “Turning Out the Light,” there is a grandeur of gesture in the woman’s figure, by reason of which the picture, hanging beside genuine master-works, as I have seen it, bears up quite admirably. And again one feels that the beauty of the work is not the beauty of the woman; neither is it to be explained by the etcher’s intimate rendering of a scene, though he has here made us aware again of the possibility of using commonplace incidents as the subject-matter of great art. It is for the art itself that we value the print, for the way in which the forms and spaces of light and shade make us sharers in the vision of the fine mind that has seen a new significance in the world. It would be too much to say that he always reached the importance of the two plates which I have described. There would still, however, be something in the kindling black and white of Mr. Sloan’s etching that told of an artist’s feeling for his medium, not merely the illustrator’s rendering of the humor or pathos of his scene.

And yet this work, while it insisted on holding so close to the life which was its subject, did not escape a certain confusion and vagueness. The large forms were impressive, but one feels that they could be scarcely carried on to clear definition such as underlies the most summary sketch of the masters. There was a sense of logical design in the best of the early work, but again and again there was detail that seemed to conflict with it. The color had the fineness denoting a man with an instinct for color, but withal there were habits of painting that partly defeated the artist’s native gift. Often when he rebelled against the neutral tone that grew out of the mixture of tints that should have been kept fresh and clear, his placing of a strong red or green relieved the duller hues only at the cost of violence. The painting was American not only in scene and character, but in its struggle, its determination to surmount the handicaps due to the meagerness of our opportunity to enter the important movement of our time. The Italian youth who stays in Florence, the young Spaniard in Madrid, or the Austrian in Vienna, does not get from the great museums of his city a substitute for the living art that centers in Paris. But he does not have to travel so far as we to get into contact with the fertilizing tendencies of his day. Americans are being enormously aided to-day by the efforts that have been made to bring here works embodying the present aspect of the age-old tradition (the only aspect through which we can approach that tradition). But there was hardly a trace of such stimulus, of such interpreting of the classics through our contemporary idiom, during Mr. Sloan’s formative years. It is therefore of the greatest significance that he made the advances of his mature years with only the small assistance he found here.

We have seen that he was always a modernist in so far as the word implies a response to modern life. But life has an infinite number of expressions, and in art they are affected, though not determined, by the form which the general current of ideas has evolved. Sometimes a particularly individual talent will stand apart from this form, and have a, special interest through that fact. More often a man who tries to go against the current, only wastes his strength and is defeated. Usually, men of intelligence recognize the advantage of sharing in the fund of ideas accumulated by the collective mind of the time, and profit by this Zeitgeist. A century ago its trend was away from the Museum, for the great Romantic movement, though carrying with it deep memories of the past, was above all an adventure into new fields. This was the phase of it to which it owes its name, and the phase that developed in momentum for a long time. We can pretty definitely mark the point where the movement changed its direction: at the moment when Cezanne became convinced that the work ahead of him demanded a new study of the classics, a new application of their laws to the immense treasury of sensation that had been heaping up. Since the world of art has come to understand his idea and the authority with which his genius gave form to it, practically every man who counts at all has joined in the great activity that he initiated. The results have been of the utmost diversity: we may recall Seurat with his relentlessly intellectual analysis, M&tisse with his extraordinary sensibility, the Cubists with their audacious but consistent logic; different as they are, all are continuers of Cezanne’s renewed and broadened study of the classics.

The French artists, like those just named, being at the center of the modern movement, saw its tendency earliest and most clearly; and it is they who have produced the greatest results in it. But the tendency was felt in America and, without abdicating any of his personality, Mr. Sloan accepted his share in it. His pictures, in the last ten years or so, reveal a very different attitude toward color, he has made a far more conscious study of its properties than was indicated by anything in his early work. His conception of form has clarified and deepened. In the best of his recent work, color and form work together—the desideratum in the problem—and the picture thereby achieves a beauty scarcely to be expected from the painting of that preceding time when his emphasis was so overwhelmingly on the emotional or intellectual side of his expression. And he shows not the slightest sign of having reached the end of his development.

I have spoken of the share of the modern movement in advancing his ideas. But at least a mention should be made of another influence. For some six years, Mr. Sloan has been spending long summers in New Mexico. The sight of that great country, with its blue sky and its tawny desert, has in itself demanded a type of painting different from that which seemed to fit the gray color of New York and Philadelphia. But even more important than this new experience was the contact with the life of our Southwest, with the relics of Spanish civilization and with the very vital survivals of the religion, the culture, and art of the Indians. Their art is absolutely inseparable, as Mr. Sloan himself has often remarked, from their religion. The rug-making, the decoration of pottery and, above all, the dancing are immediate and pure expressions of their whole idea of the universe and man’s place in it. Once, the whole of this continent was at one with the great nature-forces, and the primitive people communed with them in a way that is impossible to men of our intellectual past. Even to-day the ancient people who still keep that little stretch of their ancestral land in Arizona and New Mexico retain the vision that the centuries of life on this land had given to their race. It is this vision that informs their art, and that poets, musicians and painters are eagerly seeking to know while there is still a chance to know it. Beside the general inspiration which John Sloan owes to his contact with this life, there has been, more specifically, the example he has had of an art transporting ideas as far from their source in nature as we see in the rhythm of the dances and the form and color of the Indian painting. Such art comes as a confirmation of the findings of the great trend of latter-day Europe. It must have been particularly welcome to Mr. Sloan, with his life-long habit of drawing on native resources; for the Southwest of today is the representative of the America of the past, and it was fitting that it should become part of the heritage of the man whom we have been considering, a man whom every one of us may take pride in thinking of as an American artist.


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