The Poetry of Everyday Life: John Sloan’s New York Paintings

John French Sloan, Sunset, West Twenty-third Street (23rd Street, Roofs, Sunset) , 1906
oil on canvas, 24 3/8 x 36¼, 61.91 x 92.1 cm. Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska.

John Sloan is known for his unflinching eye. His New York could be transcendent, full of heartbreaking moments, like the sunset captured in his 1906 painting, “Sunset, West Twenty-Third Street.” Sloan’s New York could also be a dark, hard place.

Some of my favorite Sloan paintings capture those small moments of joy, or pleasure, that creep up on us, moments that overtake us, in an ecstasy that takes us out of our present.

Others, like his painting of the bar at McSorley’s, freeze the flow of ordinary time. Frozen, in paint, the moment becomes monumental. Even the most ordinary moments and gestures, revealed like this, carry a heft, and dignity, that render them both solemn, and sad.

John French Sloan, McSorley’s Bar, 1912. Oil on canvas, Unframed: 26 x 32 in. (66 x 81.3 cm)
32 7/8 x 39 1/4 x 3 in. (83.5 x 99.7 x 7.6 cm). Detroit Institute of Art.

An old friend was quite fond of McSorley’s Old Ale House in the East Village. That friend moved away from New York a long time ago, but I think of him every time I walk by McSorley’s… or see John Sloan’s painting of the bar at McSorley’s. (F, if you’re reading this, I never go to McSorley’s anymore. It turns out that I’m allergic to something in beer. I do, however, pass by Amor y Amargo often, and sometimes stop in for bitters to take home. A y A will always be your spot.)

Of all the figures in Sloan’s painting, the quiet camaraderie between the two barmen, in their crisp white shirts and aprons, is the detail that always gets me. It also reminds me of Manet’s famous painting of the barmaid at the Folies Bergére–the two paintings don’t so much echo each other as rhyme, one is all quiet interiority, and the other, bright, brash exteriority.

John French Sloan, Easter Eve, 1907. Private Collection.
John French Sloan, A Woman’s Work, 1912. Oil on canvas. Cleveland Museum of Art.
John French Sloan, Pigeons, 1910. Oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Sloan often painted slices of city life that he glimpsed from his studio windows. Looking at Sloan’s paintings, I realize that, despite the passage of a century (and change), certain aspects of the city haven’t changed all that much. My neighbors still hang laundry on their rooftops, and sometimes on their fire escapes (I can’t recall seeing any clotheslines strung between buildings recently, but never say never). One of my neighbors keeps pigeons on his roof, and on a nice day, I can watch him direct the birds’ movements with a flag on a long thin pole (just like the one in Sloan’s painting). The birds circle and swoop. turning and forming patterns that are at once mesmerizing and complex.

John French Sloan, Six O’ Clock, Winter, 1912. Oil on canvas. 26 1/8 x 32 in.; 66.3575 x 81.28 cm
The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

The Third Avenue El is long gone, but this mood — early dusk, on a winter’s evening — remains, lonely and mournful, but also buoyant and filled with possibility. Bright lights beckon. The restaurants are open. The workday is over. The long winter night waits, with open arms.

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