Contemporary Work in Painting, 1928-1940
February 08 – March 07, 1942
Talk on John Sloan given at the Renaissance Society
I know it would be pure presumption to tell you how you ought to feel about John Sloan's painting. For one thing, his work needs no interpretation, no explanation-- unless it be of a technical nature. It is a clear record of one artist's reaction to the visual experiences of his life. Sloan's painting lies in the tradition of Hogarth's later compatriots, the illustrators Leech and Cruikshank. Other people could, of course, claim an entirely different set of aesthetic ancestors.
Author: Aaron Bohred
You know these tie-ups, one artist with another, are rather interesting. Last week a Saturday afternoon critic said that Sloan was sometimes called the "Manhattan Constantin Guys." There is a certain justification for the title, (though I've never heard it used by anyone else), because there is external similarity in the approach of the two artists. In the event I were called upon to discuss the matter, I tried to look up the pronunciation of the name of this minor French artist. But it wasn't to be found in the biographical section of the big Webster's dictionary. John Sloan's name was there, however. Perhaps the critics meant that Guys (it's spelled G-U-Y-S -- and I still don't know whether I have it right), perhaps he meant that Guys is now sometimes referred to as the "Parisian John Sloan."
In the early phases of his work, John Sloan concerned himself with what we call genre: street scenes, restaurant life, paintings of saloons, ferry boats, roof tops, backyards and so on through a whole catalogue of commonplace subjects. In his later and present phase, his main concern is with that most complex item of Nature's architecture- the human body.
I first knew John Sloan when I went to New York to study painting at the Art Students League. That was in 1902. --By the way, I trust you will forgive me for speaking of myself. This is something I must do if I am to take of John Sloan as a teacher of art. --I had already spent a little less than two years at the School of the Art Institute, here, and had done some work in the commercial art field. This, while it proved fairly remunerative, had not been exactly the use to which I thought I ought to put what I fondly hoped were "my talents."
My first view of John Sloan came when he quietly entered our classroom, looked about while at the easels which held the canvases started the day before, planted himself in the middle of the studio floor and talked. He spoke or and hour. He spoke, it seemed to me, of everything under the sun. H spoke on the textural significance of the skin of an onion. Over the course of a year his words were to be repeated again and again; and when applied to the particular, they were to make profound good sense. Finally close to home, he talked of painting; conservative painting, modern painting, modernistic paintings. He explained wherein the distinctions lay. Each student was wondering, I know I was, where his work would stand in the esteem of this famous artist, this great teacher of art. Would he put his finger on any of us as possessors of incipient genius?
His introductory speech finished, he moved over to the canvas nearest to hand. That canvas was mine. The art student- of my day at any rate- was pathetically eager for his teacher's words of praise. John Sloan, it had appeared, liked modern painting. Well, I felt I could turn out as good a chunk of modern painting as any student of my age and weight. A scholarship in my second year at the Institute had given me a lot of confidence. I was developing, I thought, a "style." In my commercial job I had been considered a kind of pioneer, a daring exponent of the very latest and revolutionary art ideas. With the class but one day old, I had already detected, I imagines, my fellow students looking at my hard-edged, tricky canvas with glances of envy. Sloan talked loudly. He wanted the whole room to hear. He had said that students can learn from each other's work. That what he had to say about one person's work might be applied with beneficial results by another. Looking at my canvas, his first words were, "I see that this person has had considerable experience painting." My chest swelled; I was elated. But deflation set in quickly. I do not recall how I was able to remain standing when I heard him continue: "And now he will have to unlearn everything he knows and start from scratch." Into my dim consciousness drifted phrases about a too smartly-educated hand; about a possible correction lying in the use of the opposite untrained, unsophisticated hand,- then the painting might come from the heart without suffering the obfuscating effects of a trickily trained wrist. "If you want to be a painter," Sloan had finished, "keep away from commercial art." I had never dreamed it would show.
The next day I tucked my commercial art samples under my arm and the day following that I was seated at the drawing table of a swanky art studio, the possessor of the best art job I had ever held. But on that morning I had no enthusiasm for commercial art. Was this, I asked, was this what I had come to New York for? I kept thinking of John Sloan. What if John Sloan did not care for my stuff? I would go back and show that man. I went back, but I don't believe I showed him much that year. Always there was something that came between me and the canvas on which I placed my studies. But toward the end of the year, Sloan admitted to liking a couple of my drawings, had approved mildly of a painting or two, and at last he stated (reluctantly it appeared to me) that I might be on the right track. I was far from being an outstanding student in his group. While I worked with him for just a year, by remote control I think I remained under his influence for quite some time afterward. His influence somehow engendered a spirit of self criticism which is a healthy attribute in a young artist. Sloan was an inspiring teacher. Painting, he said, was drawing with oil color. Drawing was all important. "Draw," he said, "Draw everything you see or imagine or dream of, and draw in every conceivable way." And so we students drew. Wherever we went, we went armed with sketch books. At night, in our own rooms, we turned out the lights and drew strange things without being able to see our papers. We drew from memory. We drew with the left hand. We drew with both hands at once. We pretended we were Matisse and drew like him. Like Renoir, and drew like him. Like Picasso. Strangely, Sloan admired Picasso's painting. He said that his work, Picasso is a great teacher of art; that he slices away all the extraneous non-essential and shows the student only the very necessary bone and muscle structure of design. We tried to draw like Picasso: but always consciously, with an effort to fathom the artist's thought processes; never with the idea of acquiring style cheaply.
At the end of a pose we would often string our drawings along a line and Sloan would talk about the efforts. He pointed out when a student had successfully expressed the pose, and wherein another had failed. These postmortems were extremely valuable and stimulating. The method was a far cry from the whispered, cautious form of criticism in vogue in most other classes.
Sloan painted, he told us, in two separate stages. First he was concerned with expressing the underlying structure of the thing she painted. The second stage was intended to give surface life to the inner forms, by a textural overly imparting significance to those forms. That is where the skin of the onion comes in. The inner onion, expressing the special character of the object, the skin, its color and texture.
Sloan was never content merely to talk. Talk on art can easily become meaningless abstraction. Where he could, he demonstrated. And he was just enough of a showman to enjoy these demonstrations. He had never for several years used the glaze method of painting. This was in line with his two part system. A sold under painting serving as a base; the transparent glaze overly giving life to the forms beneath.
For his glaze demonstration he posed the model very carefully. While this went on he seemed to be drawing the figure mentally. Very carefully he washed his canvas with turpentine and with simple earth colors he sketched in his basic forms. For white he used the simple Dutch Boy white lead. I will not go into great detail with technical process. The under painting was finished in a couple of hours. It looked strangle unprepossessing. It was very pale. It barely delineated the forms he had worked on, though close inspection showed directive brush strokes which perfectly disrobed the figure.
The painting was allowed to dry and the demonstration was resumed the following week. Now the glaze was to be applied. First Sloan scraped off the little blobs of paint-- paint lice he calls them-- caused by the coarsely ground white lead. Then with a rich varnishy medium he diluted his colors and flowed on his glaze tones. The flesh tones glowed with the stuff of life. The beauty of the glaze is that the under painting takes on a luminosity which cannot be gained by direct thick painting. Certain beautiful colors that are dangerous in direct painting can be used with impunity in the glaze method. The whole result is a richness and a character which was an everyday achievement with the old masters, but quite unique in our time. This particular canvas contained but aminimum of the linear cross hatch which you see on many of Sloan's figure paintings now.
When the painting was complete, I remembered that Sloan signed it not once, but twice. The first time it had been too well lettered and he wiped out the signature with the remark that while he did not care whether people knew that he once had earned his living as a lettering man, he did not want to keel reminding them of the fact. Sloan hated facility and cleverness in its every aesthetic manifestation.
John Sloan gazed at his finished painting without false modesty. But he said, as he patted down his reverse pompadour, that is looked like it might be a work of a Rubens- done when the artist was six years old. His ingenuous statement instilled in us a great and rewarding desire to learn as much as possible about the work of the great Flemish master. With just such an off-hand touch Sloan introduced us to many another Titan of the brush.
Sloan's classes had never suffered from the kind of mutual imitation current in the neighboring studios. Next door was a class of earnest young people presided over by the popular Von Sneegell. This man's work was of a sort diaphanous nature, sensitive enough in its way. But every one of his students worked in a soft whispy manner, sensitive enough, but in the same way. A like gregarious disease held sawy in the Kenneth Hayes Miller class. The students were just imitators of Miller's special technique. Even now the New York critics pride themselves on being able to spot a Miller student at a glance. It really is no great feat. The sturdier of the Miller students, of course, drifted away from the influence and have developed something of their won. The weaker have been crushed.
The value of Sloan's teaching has been that very early he has encouraged the student to make his own road through the jungle of art trends; the student has been taught to look to Nature and to paint with a creative building- up process; so that the "manner" of his painting comes as natural to him as his own handwriting.
As well as a leader in art, Sloan is also a leader and fighter in the cause of the worthy art movements. Everybody knows his valiant work in the foundation of the Society of Independent Artists, when there was a crying need for the format in of such an organization. During the year I studied with him, the Art Students League was wrecked with great agitation. Sloan as president of the League had been restless under the policy of inbreeding which obtained in the school. Prize students were returning after a year or two to perpetuate as teachers the methods and ideas they had learned in the same institution. It was Sloan's thought that the school reach out and embrace new talents- that it would benefit immeasurably from the resulting fresh impulses. Specifically, he wanted the League to offer a teaching position to George Grosz, who, perhaps having had access to a good political barometer was making his way to our shores. Thus, the entrenched bureaucracy of student managers could not see its way to do. Grosz was rumored to be a red, a trouble maker. The fight raged long and loud. It was Sloan against the majority, an unequal struggle which went the way of all such fights. Sloan resigned his presidency and his position in the school. But in the end his ideas won out. Several years later Grosz was offered the position Sloan had tried to get for him. He proved to be one of the most able and popular instructors on the staff. Other new talents were incorporated until now the League stands once more as the best art institution of its kind in the country.
A little while back I touched the cross hatch aspect of Sloan's painting. This has been called down upon his head some pretty stiff abuse from the critics and some of his fellow artists.
First, it had been a matter of amazement that an artist who for his painting was so generally admired and respected, chose to leave all that behind and launch out, at about the age of sixty, into an entirely new field. He had already reached the status of "grand old man of art." That Sloan was unwilling to rest on old laurels was considered admirable. But that he chose a kind of painting with which he was unfamiliar and which in some eyes brought about deplorable results, was deemed a pity. I am far from agreeing that the results Sloan attained in his figure painting are deplorable. I cannot help saying that I think the cross hatch he uses in an attempt to bring greater textural realization to his surface forms, sometimes does defeat his purpose, and instead obscures those forms. I think this is the result of a too insistant application of his dictum: form first, then surface. This happens in but very few instances and the bulk of his figure painting hasten same sensitivity, the same penetrating observation, the same love of subject that existed in his earlier work.
This adverse reaction to his cross hatch technique Sloan has out ridden as he has outlasted his critics in every other fight he has been in. In this connection I am reminded of his colleague, William Glackens, who also rode out a long storm of mild abuse; though he, I believe, did not so much deserve to win. You remember Glackens' early work. The Art Institute owns a very fine example of a double figure piece painted in the way of Manet. But for the greater part of his mature painting career. Glackens executed innumerable fine examples paintied in the manner of Renoir. Time and time again critics pointed out this fact, but making no impression, they tired of saying it. Before his death a few years ago they no longer seemed to remember that he was still painting like a vegetarian Renoir.
And so John Sloanhas gone his way; with better reason for the going. Critics no longer call derisive attention to his cross hatch nudes. And a few mueum directors are even beginning to show some of these later paintings in their exhibitions; though most of them still rely on the earlier works for Sloan representation.
I had not seen Sloan for eleven years when I met him again at the Biesels', who are also former Sloan students, Sloan had somehow known my painting a little but did not remember me as a student. Frances Strain had arranged for me to meet him when he passed through Chicago last fall. I reminded him that I had not been a very good student while in his class; but he was gracious enough to tell me of a little incident which took place before one of my paintings in a New York exhibition. He was telling his companion, Don Freeman, who had studied with Sloan at the same time I did, that in this painting were demonstrated some of the things he tried to get across with his teaching. Freeman had told him, "You should like that painting; the artist was one of your students." Seeing Sloan again, after this long lapse of time, made me feel strange. He is over seventy now. He had just recovered from a severe illness. He was talking to Frances Strain and me of a section of his book "Gist of Art." The things he said were the same things he had said years ago. I think I may have found fault, new, rightly or wrongly, with one or two of his ideas. I concluded that valuable as was his philosophy of art, still more important was the indefinable quality of inspiration with which he was able to give direction to the talents of the young students.
Just a week or two after this, I saw him again in New York. It was at one of those strange restrictive exhibitions. This one was at the Whitney Museum and the work on display was by artists under forty. Hardly a gray headed artist could be seen at this opening. If their work were not being shown, there was no reason for the veteran artists to appear. But John Sloan and his perky little wife were there. Still shaky from his illness, Sloan was eager to see the work of the comparative unknowns on display, glad to pass along a word of encouragement to a young artist just finding painting legs.
A moment ago I mentioned Sloan's Book, "Gist of Art." It was in 1929 and 1930 that much of the material for this book was gathered. Helen Farr, who collected the bulk of this material, painted in Sloan's class. But whenever Sloan was present she followed him about gathering the pearls of wisdom that dropped from his lips. And more often then not they were real pearls. If you would like an insight into an artist's approach to life and the business of painting, read this book. I think you will enjoy it, and I think it may teach you to understand a but better the art of the past and of the present.
And now -at least- a final thought. If I were a professional lecturer I would not think of saying this. But since I am only a professional painter I think of it in connection with every exhibition. The purchase of a work of his art is still the greatest appreciation you can give an artist. If you like the work you see here, and can do so, buy a John Sloan painting for you collections. Sloan shows you here a cross section of his later work. These are paintings done with sincerity, sympathy and true humility. There is nothing here of the chic. No fireworks and none of the titillating devices served up by some artists for jaded appetites of some critics and gallery goers. If you have an empty spot on one of your walls, consider a John Sloan for that spot; or if you have a place tenanted by an unworthy occupant, eject it for a work of art by this great "custodian of American culture."