Monday, July 06, 2015

A Triumph of the Aesthetic Over the Subject

"I have nothing to teach you that will help you to make a living."
John French Sloan

A Founding member of New York’s Ash Can School who changed his style and choice of subjects when the social realist depictions favored by the movement had started to gain acceptance, John French Sloan was the quintessential artist as rebel.

As he said "I have always painted for myself and made my living by illustrating and teaching. I have never made a living from my painting." 

Sloan realized his talent and enthusiasm for art at the age of 16 whilst working as the family breadwinner in a bookshop. It was a job that allowed time for him to develop his abilities in illustration to such an extent that by the age of 20 Sloan had found employment in the art department of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Whilst taking evening classes at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Sloan was introduced to painting. Three years later he moved to The Philadelphia Press which allowed him more time to concentrate of his painting.

Coming from an underprivileged though educated background Sloan identified with the working class and when he moved to New York in his early thirties, with a supportive wife who shared his political ideals, the social realism espoused by the Ash Can School was a natural fit. Although as he was later to recall "When I painted the life of the poor, I was not thinking about them like a social worker - but with the eye of a poet who sees with affection."

It was during this time that Sloan produced some of his best known works and in 1908 he was a participant in the exhibition The Eight at New York’s MacBeth Gallery. Organized as a direct reaction against the slights from the conservative National Academy of Design, it was well attended but received mixed reviews.

Five years later Sloan had two paintings and five etchings included in the ground breaking 1913 Armory Show that introduced the Post Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism and Futurism of the experimental European avant-garde to an astonished American audience. In the same year Sloan sold a work to the Barnes Foundation’s founder Albert C Barnes.

The influence of these works had a marked effect upon Sloan who started painting landscapes en plein air along with his urban works in the style of Van Gogh and the Fauves. Then just over a decade later, when he was in a position to make a living from his art, Sloan change his style a subject matter painting nudes and portraits. Using the underpainting and glazing techniques of the old masters these works never attained the popularity of his earlier works.

But, as he is reported to have said “The subject may be of first importance to the artist when he starts a picture, but it should be of least importance in the finished product. The subject is of no aesthetic significance.

An exhibition of the illustrated picture puzzles he made for The Philadelphia Press, The Puzzling World of John Sloan, is currently on show at the Delaware Art Museum until the 6th of September.

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