JOHN SLOAN IN NEW MEXICO; October 2015
by Stacia Lewandowski
It's interesting to think about the now-famous artists who at one time could be seen strolling Santa Fe's streets, perhaps carrying a canvas or two ready for exhibition at the art museum. Robert Henri thoroughly enjoyed his long visits in 1916 and 1917 that afforded him the opportunity to paint subjects far removed from his more typical urban fare. And imagine Marsden Hartley, during 1918 and 1919, stepping out of his studio at the Palace of the Governors carrying one of his thickly painted pictures depicting abstracted santos or colorfully craggy mountains. Later, in the 1920s, both Stuart Davis (1923) and Edward Hopper (1925) sought inspiration from the city's unique cultural and historical attributes. These artists helped to put Santa Fe on the map, fostering the idea that Santa Fe had something out of the ordinary to offer artists.
But in terms of commitment and the development of Santa Fe's own artist community, it's John Sloan who could be called the most influential artist of them all. When he and the young artist Randall Davey arrived in 1919 after an exhausting six-week car drive from New York, both immediately found the city and its atmosphere well worth their efforts. They had been encouraged to visit Santa Fe by Robert Henri, who told them fantastic stories and spoke passionately about the city's intriguing artistic possibilities. At that point in his career, Sloan decided a change of scene would likely do him good. And when he arrived in Santa Fe, museum officials provided him studio space at the Palace of the Governors near the studio Marsden Hartley was using that very same summer. Indeed, he was warmly welcomed.
Interestingly, during his first season of work in the splendid Southwest, Sloan reported to Henri that he had changed his typical working method and was only painting indoors in the studio. He admitted to Henri, "'contrary to my usual custom in Gloucester, I have made no work in the open.'"1 He enjoyed, and even practiced, gaining strong visual impressions of something--the landscape or a Pueblo dance--and afterward worked from memory to construct a composition. This is noteworthy because in later years, Sloan took to working outdoors in New Mexico. And he incorporated city life--typical street scenes, daily customs, and even special events in the city--just as he did with his New York paintings.
When he initially arrived in Santa Fe, Sloan was in mid-career. He was exhibiting regularly in New York and was a very popular teacher. But he didn't sell much. As a result of his first visit to Santa Fe, Sloan returned to New York with paintings of entirely new subject matter. The artist of crowded urban street scenes and laundry-draped multi-storied apartment buildings now revealed canvases filled with sun-drenched vistas of mountains and modest adobe buildings, of a life exceedingly remote from what his New York viewers expected of him. From trips to nearby Pueblos, Sloan also made paintings of dances he observed and admired. His next exhibit in New York then, . . . . . . CONTINUED: at Kraushaar Gallery, included eighteen paintings of Santa Fe subjects, along with only two others. Though not a single painting sold, critics recognized that something was different for Sloan and commented that his work seemed to be revitalized. Sloan felt the same way.
Santa Fe offered Sloan the perfect antidote to the hectic nature of his life in New York City. When he and his wife Dolly returned the next summer they promptly purchased an adobe house on Garcia Street near Canyon Road. In the rear of the property he built a studio for himself and even included a tall observation tower above the roof that allowed him a grand view of the mountains and all the immediate surroundings. It seems that Sloan was reinvigorated. His biographer claims that the landscape paintings he made that summer were "some of his best landscapes in several years."2 And when he returned to New York, even his sales improved. In 1921 the Metropolitan Museum purchased one of his paintings, a New York scene, "Dust Storm, Fifth Avenue," and "Vanity Fair" placed Sloan in its Hall of Fame, calling him "'one of the most vigorous of present-day American painters.'"3
Sloan remained committed to his summers in Santa Fe. For the next three decades, he immersed himself in city life--physically during summers--and by letter and association the remaining part of each year. He became so involved, in fact, that he began to remark that there was too much going on in Santa Fe, and so much socializing, that he had trouble finding enough time for painting.
During the 1920s and '30s, as Santa Fe's artist community grew, Sloan counted himself as one of them. He was always ready to participate in organized events, including joining in making elaborate floats for the annual Fiesta parades. Young artists looked to him, seeking his expertise as an experienced art teacher and exhibition organizer. (After all, he was one of "The Eight" whose exhibit at New York's Macbeth Galleries in 1908 famously led to the term, "The Ash Can School," and for many years he served as president and organizer of the Society of Independent Artists in New York.) Sloan exhibited his work regularly at Santa Fe's art museum and even donated some of it for their permanent collection. He voiced his opinion about current events in town, and Santa Fe's artists knew they could depend on him to stand alongside them. His voice carried weight. Sloan's friendships were true and long lasting, and he loved, indeed savored, the simple authentic charm of his Southwestern idyll.
When John Sloan did not return to Santa Fe during the summer of 1951, all of the artists felt the void created by his absence. And when his great friend, Will Shuster, received the telegram reporting his death on September 8th, it was a grave shock. The newspaper responded the next day by dedicating a large amount of space to the writings of Sloan's various Santa Fe friends who were eager to pay tribute to an artist of lasting influence.
1. John Loughery, John Sloan: Painter and Rebel (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1995), p. 251.
2. Ibid., p. 258
3. Ibid., p. 259