Instant Images of NYC: Paintings by John Sloan at Westmoreland Museum of American Art

The lecture “Seeing the Industrial City: New York and Pittsburgh” given by the Westmoreland Director Judith O’Toole was held on a snowy gray Wednesday, in a small auditorium of the museum. The shocking impact of ash can school could be well understood even before the lecture was given if one had just spent a few minutes in the first floor landscape room before heading to the lecture. The western PA Scalp Level artists captured the sheer beauty of nature serenity that was, at that time, gradually eroded by industrial scenes. Yet in the dark pallet of ash can school, it is the mundane urbanity, noisy traffic with pollution and ordinary working class people that were celebrated. Between the death of George Hetzel and young John Sloan’s move to New York, only seven years elapsed; but the art had decided to advance in such an unprecedented pace that the un-morale-lifting ugliness arrived before the general public could even imagine it, not to mention criticize it with objectivity.

Interestingly, although the Eight were remembered as a group which initiated the ashcan movement, their styles and subjects varied greatly. Robert Henri, the most famous painter and the mentor for some others, painted with calmness and ease. In his portraiture, the sitters stand elegantly out of darkness bearing an intimate freshness. Ernest Lawson, by contrast, was not in the vein of Henri and more interested in pure landscapes. John Sloan, who worked as an illustrator for Philadelphia Inquirer, has the astonishing directness of brushwork, almost as effective and efficient as George Below, another student of Robert Henri.

Sloan’s New York captured a city where destruction and construction were equally dominating, a city of mass population of diversity and quintessentially a city of ever-lasting activity. There is always a strong sense of narration in all these paintings. The moments in the big oil paintings, neither the climax nor the beginning or ending of some events, have the immediacy that intrigues people into the scenes that could nevertheless be ignored in life. These were echoed by some of Sloan’s drawings also featured in the exhibition. At the turn of the 20th century he worked as a news-paper reporter in Philadelphia but soon lost the job when photographing gradually took it over. Those drawings are evident of Sloan’s most important training for his later style: quick narrative sketching that captured only the necessary details. His “Red Kimono on the Roof”, the simplified city background almost is almost bordering catoonish, but his remarkable brush strokes of describing a girl in red out of dull buildings with wood peg in her mouth make the work surprisingly inspiring, a combination of accident and familiarity, like a color version of Bresson’s decisive moment.

More Sloan’s lectures will be held in Westmoreland Museum of American Art in the coming weeks.

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