From Ashcan to Hall of Fame: The Illustrations of John Sloan

John Sloan (1871–1951), best known as a painter of the New York passing scene, began his career as an illustrator in Philadelphia for newspapers, books, and magazines. His strongest work was social in tone, texture, and emotion, which led him to become the “art editor” of The Masses, the strident and satiric left-wing monthly. But before he started his painting and printmaking career as one of the Ashcan School artists, capturing the grit of New York, he also dabbled in poster making, developing an Art Nouveau style similar to Will Bradley.


 Last Friday night he was posthumously (although it’s never too late, they say) inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame. His fellow inductees were Ludwig Bemelmans, Edward Gorey, R.O. Blechman (more on him later), John Collier, and Nancy Stahl.

A wealth of his graphic work is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (see it here). But on Friday, Heather Campbell Coyle, the curator of American art at the Delaware Art Museum, accepted the SI honor for Sloan, who had no children. She wrote in her Society of Illustrators catalog essay:

Poster for fete at Webster Hall, NYC.

Sloan specialized in decorative work, like headings, puzzles, and illustrations for fiction and the society pages. He studied French and English illustrators, including Daumier, Gavarni, Leech, and Du Maurier. He developed an elegant personal style, using flat patterns and sinuous lines that drew on French art nouveau and Japanese woodblock prints. Sloan was part of the emerging aesthetic of the poster style. His stylized illustrations began to appear in advertisements and little magazines, like Moods and The Echo, and on book covers, as well as in the Philadelphia papers. With Shinn, Sloan attempted to launch a magazine named and patterned after the French Gil Blas, with illustrations by his expanding circle of friends. These little magazines were very short-lived, but at the end of the decade Sloan’s elegant illustrations began to appear in books and mainstream magazines. By that time, his presence was strong at the Press where he produced puzzles for the Sunday supplement. In 1900, his puzzles became full-page color features that invited readers to send their solutions to the newspaper for a ten-dollar prize.

Sloan ultimately devoted himself to printmaking and painting—his true metier. But his 1914 cover for The Masses, in Daumier style, of a miner holding his lifeless child, fighting for his rights against the established order during the Ludlow Masacre (an attack by the Colorado National Guard and Colorado Fuel & Iron Company camp guards on a tent colony of 1,200 striking coal miners), is for me his most memorable.

From the Metropolitan Museum of Art

From the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Cover for The Echo in Sloan's Art Nouveau style

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For more Steven Heller, don’t miss his June 27 streaming webinar, Researching Design History: From a Personal Perspective.

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