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From Inquirer artist to American master: John Sloan highlighted in Delaware show

Exhibition of an Ashcan School master shows off many unfamiliar works - both good and bad - from a long artistic career.

“Spring Rain” by John Sloan.
“Spring Rain” by John Sloan.Read moreDelaware Art Museum / Artists Rights Society, New York

I don't recall seeing a single ashcan in the Delaware Art Museum's exhibition "An American Journey: the Art of John Sloan," on view through Jan. 28.

Sloan (1871-1951) is today perhaps the best remembered of the members of the Ashcan School. They were artists who, in the years before World War I, electrified the country by painting the grit and glamour of the modern city, its parks and alleys, the swells, the drunks, the con men, the dowagers, the streetwalkers. Excitement was in the air, and so was coal smoke.

And in Sloan's paintings, drawings, and etchings, the streets were filled with pretty girls. The woman in the city was Sloan's great subject. The artist was, at times, something of a stalker, following women in the street, searching for the vignette to provide the shard of a story, a bit of drama to draw the viewer in.

Consider Spring Rain (1912). We seem to be following a young woman in a straw hat who is making her way through New York's Union Square. An urban skyline is visible in the distance. A menacing tree limb is above her head. Leaves in other trees give the scene a bright, healing green. Her clothes suggest she is a worker, not a lady. There is nothing going on in this picture, exactly, yet Sloan makes you wonder about her life and her destination.

"Spring Rain introduces an atmosphere, a character, sliver of narrative, and invites the viewer to complete the story," Heather Campbell Coyle, the museum's chief curator and curator of this show, writes in the catalog. "This type of evocative urban scene is precisely what Sloan is best known for."

Spring Rain is a highlight of the museum's collection and is nearly always on view. Most of the show consists of work for which the artist is not as well known. Though  one could imagine a great show in which Spring Rain would be united with equally fine paintings from other museums, that's not what this is. The Delaware Art Museum owns thousands of works by Sloan, as well as his lifetime archives. "An American Journey" is a presentation of Delaware's Sloan holdings that span a long career filled with many influences and enthusiasms.

"No living man has had a greater influence on American art than John Sloan," Life magazine declared in 1939. Part of that influence came from teaching and from organizing exhibitions, for Sloan was able to sell few works during his lifetime. The Delaware Art Museum's massive holdings are the result of his inability to sell.

They were mostly donated by his second wife, Helen Farr Sloan, who also worked hard to place top works from his most desirable period in art museums throughout the country. She is also the subject of Girl's Eye View (1945), one of his most charming later works here. Sloan lets us peek over the shoulder of his wife, who was 40 years younger than he, as, with paintbrush in one hand and a cigarette in the other, she paints the landscape near their home in Santa Fe.

A show like this is double-edged. It can be an opportunity to rediscover a forgotten artist. Or, by focusing on what's less than the best, hasten the artist's journey into the ash heap of history. This show does a bit of both. It illuminates some of his interesting early work, but it also shows later works inferior to what other American artists were doing at the time. For example, he spent much of his life painting landscapes in New Mexico, where he had a house, but it's obvious that Georgia O'Keeffe and Marsden Hartley did it better. Still, his scenes of New Mexico celebrations and community life have some of the verve and bite of his New York scenes.

Before the Ashcan School moniker stuck to them, Sloan and his cohorts — Robert Henri, George Luks, Maurice Prendergast, William Glackens, Everett Shinn, Ernest Lawson, and Arthur B. Davies — promoted themselves as The Eight. They mounted a successful group show in New York in 1908 that traveled around the country and established them as the new artists on the scene.

All of them had begun their careers at Philadelphia newspapers, documenting fires and fashion shows, just at the moment before halftone photographs became standard and these quick-drawing journalists needed to go to New York and remake themselves as artists.

Sloan began his professional career at the Inquirer, later moving to another paper, the Press, where he encountered many of the rest of The Eight. Even before he received artistic training, briefly at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, his drawings of Atlantic City bathers and Chestnut Hill tennis players were very modern for their time, showing the influence of Japanese printmakers and contemporary art nouveau graphic artists, such as Aubrey Beardsley.

While in Philadelphia, Sloan did oil paintings of such subjects as the Walnut Street Theatre, focused on the fire escapes, an extraordinarily murky Merchants' Exchange building, and a view of the Schuylkill so smogged in with Whistlerian ambiguity that not a single landmark is to be seen.

At the same time he was learning to be a painter, Sloan was also teaching himself to make etchings, a medium that capitalized on his drawing skills. His 10 prints in the 1905 series New York Life meld close observation, social commentary, satire, and compassion. One of them, The Woman's Page, shows a frowzy, barefoot woman in a tiny, disheveled flat, ignoring her child and reading the section of the newspaper Sloan once illustrated. Another, Fun, One Cent, shows a cluster of girls gathered around a peepshow. Sloan doesn't let us know what they are seeing, but they are ignoring a nearby machine offering "Women in Night Gowns."

I am glad also to have seen his 1915 monotype of the legendary dancer Isadora Duncan in motion. Sloan rhapsodized over her "heavy solid figure, large columnar legs, a solid high belly, breasts not too full," and what his quickly executed print shows is an ordinary "not angelic, materialistic" woman, willing herself to be art.

We'll never know just how Duncan threw her audiences into ecstasy. But we know how Sloan saw it, and that's a gift.

"An American Journey: the Art of John Sloan"

through Jan. 28

at Delaware Art Museum

2301 Kentmere Parkway |Wilmington, DE 19806

(866) 232-3714

Wednesday: 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.
Thursday: 10:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m.
Friday – Sunday: 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.
Monday and Tuesday: Closed

Family (up to 2 adults & 4 children): $25
Adults: $12
Seniors (60+): $10
Students (w/valid ID): $6
Youth (ages 7 – 18): $6
Children 6 and under: Free