Election Night, by John Sloan, is a social realist portrayal of a busy urban New York City night in 1907.
John Sloan was born in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania in 1871. Since he was little, Sloan wanted to be an artist, but had to pause schooling at the age of 16 to help his family’s economic situation (4). Sloan found illustration jobs for the local newspaper and later started studying art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, where he met fellow artist and friend Robert Henri. In his mid thirties, Sloan moved to Greenwich Village, NY where he focused on urban street life as his subject matter. In New York, Robert Henri created an art exhibit with Sloan and six other realist artists at the time: “The Eight.” This exhibit snowballed into the creation of the Ashcan School for American Art which focused on social realist painting (6).
In the early 1900s the Ashcan School focused on the grittier side of metropolitan life: Social Realism. Social Realism is a branch of Post-Impressionism that focused on social issues of everyday life (1). Often times, Sloan was considered “the Painter in the Crowd” (3). This “Painter in the crowd” means that Sloan painted what he saw and didn’t idealize, like in the impressionism art movement.
Sloan stuck to his new style, creating a new art movement: social realism. Elite critics called Sloan’s work “vulgar” and “disturbing” – lacking beauty (2). But it was just an accurate portrayal or lower class/working class citizens.
Currently located in the Collection of the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, this oil painting pulls the viewer into the scene. To feel apart of the work was Sloan’s goal. Here is the scene of Election Night written in Sloan’s Journal:
“Took a walk in the afternoon and saw boys in droves, foraging for fuel for their election fires this evening. . . . after dinner . . . out again and saw the noisy trumpet blowers, confetti throwers and the “ticklers” in use—a small feather duster on a stick which is pushed in the face of each girl by the men, and in the face of men by the girls. A good humorous crowd, so dense in places that it is impossible to control one’s movement.” (4)
“Impossible to control one’s movement” is exactly how I would describe Sloan’s oil painting; the quick brushstrokes heighten the sense of movement. This piece was very relative to the working class of New York at the time, because of the location and energy depicted in this work. While this is a very shaded and quick piece, the detailing of the Herald Building (on the painting’s left) and the elevated train tracks on Sixth Avenue are very obvious (7). The train’s light, movement and noise add to the lively feel in this scene.
Sloan draws the viewer in with the centered woman in red. Then directional movement is created by the seemingly constant expansion of the crowd in the back. This never-ending crowd is paralleled to the “never-ending” greatness of industry in the United States (7). While the triangle of the crowd draws the viewer further back, the circular artificial lights in the top left bring focus back to the foremost celebrants.
Now the concept of time is strange in this painting because it was created in 1907. No elections were partaking: T. Roosevelt was reelected in 1904 and New York mayor, George McClellan, was safely serving in his second term (6). There is nothing in the painting about the outcome – no posters or anything. But many critics state: while John Sloan was known as a socialist, he did not want to be a social/political commentator in his work (3). So the ‘Election of 1907’ is a mystery to me, but could just be a depiction of another election night in years past.
The early 1900s was the time of Progressiveness, but to me, this scene seems the opposite of social control: a celebration! (5) And to be even more specific, I argue it is a socialist celebration. This is a vast crowd, all cheering the same thing: ie. working together. This togetherness can be focused around the train in the background and how social change over the ownership of trains was changing to be more inclusive and state-run (5). While Social Realism is defined as depicting common social life, I also think there is some socialistic realism displayed by the choice of painting a celebration of an electoral, socialist, or common goal.
1. ARTcyclopedia. “Artists by movement: Social Realsim.” http://www.artcyclopedia.com/history/social-realism.html
2. Coco, Janice Marie. “John Sloan.” American National Biography Online. http://www.anb.org/articles/17/17-00804.html
3. “John Sloan: Figuring the Painter in the Crowd.” JStor. The Art Bulletin. Vol. 93, No. 3 (September 2011), pp. 345-368. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23046581?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
4. “John French Sloan (1871-1951).” Taos and Santa Fe Painters. http://www.johnsloanpaintings.com/
5. Krome-Lukens, Anna. -In class Discussion. 2015
6. Lopate, Phillip. “Ashcan School.” New York Times. December 7 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/02/books/review/Lopate-t.html?_r=1&
7. “Seeing America: John Sloan’s Election Night, 1907.” Seeing America Through Artists Eyes. http://mag.rochester.edu/seeingAmerica/pdfs/36.pdf