I have looked at many paintings which have featured inns and taverns but they have been mainly been depictions of rural scenes with peasants in the Netherlands and Flanders and were painted by the Dutch and Flemish painters centuries ago. Today, for a change, I am looking at a genre painting of a tavern scene but this is not really a tavern, more what we British would call a pub or Americans would term a bar or a saloon. The title of the painting is McSorley’s Bar and was painted by the American artist John French Sloan. Sloan was originally a member of a group of artists who had the strange collective name of The Eight and later he became a leading figure in the Ashcan School of realist artists. I have featured works by these artists in earlier blogs and if you enter either Ashcan School or Robert Henri or George Bellows into the “Search” function at the right of this blog it will give you a little bit of history about these artist groups.
John French Sloan was born in New York in 1871. His father James had had an interest in art, but as only as a hobby but he did encourage his children to draw and paint during their early years. Sloan’s father struggled to find gainful employment moving from one job to another without ever making a fortune. He married, Henrietta, a girl who had come from a much more financially prosperous family and who was a teacher. James Sloan suffered a mental breakdown when John was seventeen years of age and consequently was unable to work and the burden of supporting the family fell on to the shoulders of the seventeen year old John. For this reason, John Sloan had to leave school and find a job in order to bring in some money for the family.
Sloan was employed in a local bookstore as an assistant cashier. The job was not very taxing and the young man had time to read the books that were on sale at the emporium and also spend time studying the artistic prints that it also held. It was during this time that Sloan started to make pen and ink copies of some of the prints and the store owner liked them so much that he allowed Sloan to put them up for sale in the store. Two years later in 1890 Sloan moved on to work in a stationery store where he used to design calendars and greeting cards. Sloan had now found the joy of art and enrolled in an evening art class. Buoyed by his artistic successes he left the stationers and set himself up as a commercial artist but his well-intentioned venture failed and he took a job as an illustrator at the local newspaper offices of The Philadelphia Enquirer, later he would work for the rival newspaper, The Philadelphia Press. He continued his artistic tuition in the evenings by enrolling at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. It was here he met and became friends with fellow artists such as William Glackens and Robert Henri who became Sloan’s mentor, sending him reproductions of works by the French Impressionists and the leading European Renaissance painters, for him to copy.
When Sloan was twenty-seven he was introduced to a young woman with a somewhat chequered history, Anna Maria Wall, known affectionately as Dolly. Sloan, who was very naive, very self-conscious and lacked the social graces which would gain him female companionship, met Anna at a brothel. Although she worked in a department store during the day, she supplemented her meagre income by working in a brothel at night. She needed the extra money to feed her other vice; she was also an alcoholic but despite all this he fell in love with her and they started, what one can imagine, was a “challenging” relationship.
Their relationship did prove difficult as Anna not only suffered the effects of excessive and prolonged alcohol intake, she suffered from alcohol-related mental problems and insecurity often believing Sloan was about to leave her. In 1906 Sloan sought medical advice and was advised that he needed to constantly support Anna and show how much he needed her. Between them they devised a plan by which Sloan would keep a dairy and in it he would write down each day how much he loved Anna and wanted to be with her and then leave the diary somewhere where she was bound to find it and surreptitiously read his journal entries and by doing so put her mind at rest. He wrote daily entries for seven years until 1913. Despite these problems, Sloan’s artistic work continued well and he was producing numerous oil paintings. In 1904 he moved to New York and went to live in Greenwich Village and although relying on money he received from his freelance work for The Philadelphia Press newspaper, he supplemented that with money he earned for his book and magazine illustrations. It was whilst living in New York, in 1912, that he painted today’s featured work McSorley’s Bar. He exhibited it at the 1913 Armory Show, an exhibition of modern art which had been organised by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors. This turned out to be a landmark exhibition which opened the eyes of the New Yorkers to this new modern art and the likes of cubism, who up till then had been accustomed to realistic art. Sloan’s painting never sold and in fact remained unsold until 1932 when the Detroit Institute of Arts purchased it. This was the first painting by Sloan to be part of a museum collection and was probably one of his best.
This painting was very typical of works by John Sloan in which he liked to depict the energy and life during the early years of the twentieth century of New York City and its inhabitants. Sloan was a socialist and a member of the Socialist Party and had great empathy with the less well-off and their demanding and troubled existences. His paintings would show the city’s people in different places and situations on the city streets and occasionally, like today’s painting, he would depict people in interior settings, such as cafés or bars as they discussed among themselves their everyday existence.
The painting today shows the interior of McSorley’s Bar with its clientele standing at the bar. John Mc Sorley opened his Manhatten establishment on East Seventh Street in 1854 and during its existence in the nineteenth century, was an all-male bar. From around 1912 it became a regular haunt of John Sloan and his Ashcan School artists. The bar Sloan depicted was somewhat rough and inhospitable. It was always frequented by a great mix of people of various social classes and even today carpenters and mechanics rub shoulders with Wall Street brokers and local politicians. John Sloan completed five paintings of the interior of the bar between 1912 and 1930 and these certainly increased the popularity of the establishment. Today, McSorley’s bar draws visitors from around the world. Its fame as New York’s oldest bar assures its survival and a 1970 court order guarantees that women are as welcome as men! It’s a museum-like place. One can go there to drink a pint of ale and survey relics of a past era.
In 1943, Sloan’s wife, Dolly, died of coronary heart disease. The next year, Sloan married Helen Farr, who is responsible for most of the preservation of his works. Part of this was the diary he wrote between 1907 and 1913 for his first wife, Dolly, to read and which were lovingly collated and published in 1965. They gave a marvellous insight into Sloan’s life and his thoughts during those turbulent times.
On September 7, 1951 John Sloan died at the age of 80, of cancer in Hanover, New Hampshire. John French Sloan was a leading figure in the Ashcan School of realist painters and was somebody who embraced the principles of socialism and allowed his artistic genius to be used to benefit those fervently upheld values. His paintings sadly rarely sold during his lifetime and teaching at the Art Students’ League, of which he became its director in 1931, was his principal income.
To learn more about McSorley’s Bar why not go to their website: