We know a lot about John French Sloan. He was one of the famous “Eight” who made up the Ashcan School in the early Twentieth Century. The Ashcan School supposedly offered us all a realistic look at New York City’s grimy underbelly, but this was a sensibility more honored in the breach than most. As usual, reality and hype do not dance together, and in fact are each listening to different orchestras at once. Most of the Ashcan School paintings I’ve seen are rather pretty. So much for grime.
Sloan’s successes were more hard-won than most. He never rang the bell of artistic greatness that so many others did. He often had to compromise his work to make a living, struggling along as an illustrator here, a cartoonist there. He was known to have a bitter and sharp way with words. In later years he would teach artists like Alexander Calder who would enjoy far greater commercial rewards than anything of which Sloan could have ever dreamt. He often warned his students they could learn nothing from him of making a living.
I love his art, and I think McSorley’s Bar is one of the great American paintings. But I am more intrigued by Sloan himself. He was a complicated and oddly gentle man. He was apparently a bit of a naif when it came to courting and the ways of romance, and when he did fall in love he chose a prostitute named Anna Maria Wall, known as “Dolly.” He had no illusions about her; they had met in the brothel. But he loved her and married her and did not care a fig for anyone else’s opinion. She was also an alcoholic, and everyone knew that as well, and he did not care a fig for anyone’s opinion about that either. Just to round things off, Dolly was also a little bit mad. Figs be damned!
Even for an artist, this was extraordinary. For her part, Dolly adored him.
Dolly did not get better, but Sloan fought harder to help her. At her doctor’s suggestion, Sloan began to keep a very special kind of diary in which he recorded not only his daily activities and work, but the many ways in which Dolly made his life better. It was a secret diary supposedly, but one he meant for her to discover, one purposely used to salt the dark mine of Dolly’s fragile self esteem. He did this patiently, religiously, from 1906 until 1913. This diary was published in the sixties and apparently provides a wonderful look into the art world and habits of that time. I will make it my business to find it and read it.
As a gift of love it must surely be without parallel.
He loved the city, too. Just as he left Dolly secrets to discover on her own, he laid out bits of urban bliss to cheer our hearts and warm our souls. He has told us that he sought only to paint the things he saw. He did not set out to say anything political or profound. He watched people secretly—refusing to disturb their realities with his needs for composition and art, which he believed were intrusions on the world. As someone who has fallen in love with New York City over and over again, I have to admit that I can feel that great urban engine just gazing at these works. It is a fabulous city filled with fabulous people.
I’ll see you there, this spring, in the park, in the rain.