John Sloan (American, 1871–1951),
Sunset, West Twenty-third Street (23rd Street, Roofs, Sunset)
oil on canvas, 24 3/8 x 36¼, 61.91 x 92.1 cm
25th Anniversary Purchase, 1957.15
Believing that a new century demanded new art, John Sloan joined ranks with a forward-thinking group of painters who became known as The Eight. Led by Robert Henri, they rejected the suave society images of leading lights William Merritt Chase and John Singer Sargent, representing instead scenes of the average New Yorker at work or leisure. For its somber colors and shabby subjects, such work was later termed Ashcan School. The Eight also called for significant changes in America's tradition-bound art academies, such as Sloan's seat of learning, the venerable Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which had earlier made dubious history by firing Thomas Eakins for his "progressive" methods.
In addition to his paintings and watercolors, exemplary for their fresh, bravura brushwork, Sloan contributed to the socialist periodical The Masses many delightful etchings filled with cutting social satire. He considered himself a member of the urban working class and found views of life around him, whether in lower Manhattan's markets or back alleys, lively, interesting, and, importantly, more suitable for art and a mass audience than reflections of privilege. Imprinted by the nationalist spirit of the times, his vision of contemporary types and events is characterized by frank observation combined with notes of humor and compassion.
A study of dramatic beauty and unexpected tranquility in an undistinguished urban landscape, Sunset, West Twenty-third Street displays Sloan's ability early in his career to transform a utilitarian setting into a more sublime vista. Reflecting his familiarity with Old Master painting and Eakins' astute realism, Sloan's subject bears a direct freshness by virtue of his extraordinary facility with color and painterly technique. Although Sunset, West Twenty-third Street could easily be understood as an image of an anonymous woman distracted from her laundry, the figure represented is the artist's wife, Dolly, on the rooftop of the building that housed his studio.