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Master of the `Ashcan School'

JOHN Sloan didn't begin painting seriously until he was 30 years old, but prints of his vivid scenes of everyday life in New York City brought him quick recognition. That doesn't mean, however, that his paintings were selling or that they were welcomed at exhibits and galleries which catered to the wealthy. Toward the end of Sloan's career he sold only one in every ten paintings. ``Yeats at Petitpas,'' an affectionate tribute, is not typical Sloan of this period, except as a record of the Chelsea district in New York City where he established his studio. He, Robert Henri, William Glackens (another high school classmate), Everett Shinn, and George Luks had together moved from Philadelphia in the first years of this century. Manhattan was to Sloan, ``a massive creation heaped upon one small island - ambiguous, evasive, ever changing and always fascinating, like a woman's smile.'' And Chelsea was Manhattan to him.

The Chelsea district is north of Greenwich Village and those artists and writers who couldn't afford ``The Village'' gravitated there. In this painting we have a lively record of a dinner in the brick-walled patio (read backyard) of the Petitpas Restaurant which was in the West 20s. Painted in 1910, the district remained a cultural haven for struggling newcomers as well as an ethnic enclave.

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Decades later, when my husband and I were dating, we went there for dinner on an inclement evening. The abundant black hair of the proprietor, Mme. Celestine Petitpas, shown in the painting, had turned gray and the tiny restaurant was all but empty, but the food was excellent still.

The patriarchal white-bearded artist is J.B. Yeats, father of the famous Irish poet, William Butler Yeats. He was eking out a living as a portrait painter and is drawing the delighted lady in the foreground, a Mrs. Charles Johnson. The self-confident looking young man at the left edge of the canvas is Van Wyck Brooks who would become famous as a literary critic and would write a biography of Sloan. The retiring young man in the shadow on the other side of the guest of honor is Allan Segar whose promising career as a poet was cut short in World War I after he wrote, ``I Have a Rendez-vous with Death.''

Dolly, Sloan's first wife, comes next. She was a volatile and unstable woman who, however, shared his intense concern for the underdog artist. And, of course, Sloan painted himself as the intense, bespectacled chap in the background right corner.

The reason I say this painting is not typical Sloan is that although the scene is gaslit night, he painted it brightly lit instead of his more usual brownish chiaroscuro. He had learned his dark-and-light composition from observing Rembrandt engravings and etchings.

Sloan grew up in a small town in Pennyslvania. He had to quit high school to help support his family. A job at a bookstore did not keep him busy all the time and he occupied himself by copying the Rembrandts with pen and ink. He did so well that he soon was selling his copies; eventually he obtained a spot as an illustrator on the prestigious Philadelphia Inquirer. There he met Shinn and Glackens and later, Luks. But the man who influenced all of them was Robert Henri whose advice was, ``Don't bother to paint art - get your motives from life.''

And this is another reason why this painting is atypical. For Sloan, the arrangement is almost formal and the surroundings and participants look, well - genteel. The paintings that conservative art exhibitors were reluctant to hang were those of hot dog munchers on the beach, alley cats looking for a meal under clotheslines laden with wash, and shopgirls drying their hair on a tenement roof on a Sunday. It was such subjects which earned Sloan and his friends the name, The Ashcan School.

However, the painting is typically Sloan in that Sloan could deftly characterize the strangers he painted in street scenes and pick out individuals from a crowded beach scene. This is a rare ability even in genre paintings. Usually we know what the participants are doing but only rarely recognize any characteristics which set them apart. This was a quality which contributed to the popularity of Sloan's paintings in reproductions.

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He, Henri, and their friends, who called themselves The Eight, fought a similar fight with the National Academy of Design in New York that the Impressionists had waged against the Academie in Paris; a battle to have ordinary scenes of ordinary people acknowledged as suitable subjects for fine art.


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