John Sloan

Backyards, Greenwich Village
1914

Not on view

Date
1914

Classification
Paintings

Medium
Oil on canvas

Dimensions
Overall: 26 × 31 15/16in. (66 × 81.1 cm)

Accession number
36.153

Credit line
Purchase

Rights and reproductions
© Delaware Art Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

John Sloan was devoted to creating art from what he observed in the streets of New York City, finding "beauty in commonplace things and people." In his paintings, he portrayed tenements, colorful neighborhood characters, and bustling crowds—all subjects deemed vulgar by the art establishment. He was, as he put it, "in the habit of watching every bit of human life I can see about my windows, but I do it so that I am not observed at all." Backyards, Greenwich Village, a work that Sloan developed from pencil sketches made from the window of his apartment on West 4th Street, evinces the artist’s keen powers of observation. Here, a private scene of two children building a snowman in a backyard, with a pair of cats and another child watching them from a window above, brings dignity and romance to lives that would otherwise go unnoticed. A depiction of children, cats, and laundry flapping in the breeze might seem nostalgic and even charming by today's standards, but in its time Sloan’s work signaled a forceful challenge to academic norms in its rejection of refined subject matter and its emphasis on aestheticizing the everyday.


Audio

  • America Is Hard to See

    John Sloan, Backyards, Greenwich Village, 1914

    John Sloan, Backyards, Greenwich Village, 1914

    0:00

    Narrator: This painting by John Sloan is called Backyards, Greenwich Village

    Adam Weinberg: I’m Adam Weinberg, the Alice Pratt Brown Director of the Whitney Museum of American Art. 

    The painting is a wonderful view out of his studio window on Perry Street, just eight blocks from the current site of the Whitney Museum. And this is a view of a rather poor neighborhood, but he shows it with a sense of energy and glee. You have children who are building a snowman sketched in the background, a cat who has actually the most remarkable shadow painted next to it, that’s trudging lithely through the whiteness of the snow. But probably the highlights of this painting are the little girl in the window with this great smile and her ruby lips and her bright eyes, and the cat who is dead center in the foreground, who actually looks a lot like the little girl in the window, with an equally big smile. 

    Narrator: To modern eyes, this painting may almost seem sentimental. But at the time, American artists typically painted more “elevated” subjects—like society portraits, landscapes, and classical scenes. Sloan’s focus on life in the tenements—laundry and all—was quite progressive for his time. Many of the artists that Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney championed shared this focus on the realities of urban life. Their subject matter—as well as the dark, smoky palette they often favored—prompted critics to call them The Ashcan School.




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