PAINTED: OLD ART, NEW SKIN – JOHN FRENCH SLOAN’S “SUNSET, WEST TWENTY THIRD STREET”
Today, we take a look at John French Sloan’s “Sunset, West Twenty-Third Street”. In the midst of a blazing summer, there’s nothing like a hot summer in New York City and in this John French Sloan painting — it seems he manages to capture both the heat of the summer and a snippet of early 20th century New York in all its glory.
First, let’s look at what he does to make New York City seem both magnificent and expansive. It seems there are 3 distinct planes. The first being the rooftop with the lady drying her clothes, for the sake of discussion she serves as our perspective point. Next up we have that massive black building looming up like a massive mountain. Personally, I don’t think this is accidental. It’s size, nearness, and dark shadow, relative to our perspective plane establish it firmly in the middle ground. But in order for it to be at scale, it’s massiveness (and therefore its distance) is apparent. Our last plane would be with the lighter buildings beyond the mountain in the middle. Because they are so small, and also so bright the way our mind works forces us to acknowledge that these buildings must be at an incredible distance considering they’re dwarfed by the mountain as well as “experiencing” an entirely different mode of light.
A little more about the magnificence. So far, what’s stated above the expansiveness could still be said if the painting were done in shades of grey. However, part of New York City’s “portraitured” magnificence is the golden hues of sunset light. That it looks like an Italian landscape painted by one of the old realist masters… and also that the summer heat, and general radiance of the city seems to be captured. Investigating color for a moment it’s all candle tones and an awful lot of shadow. Because he’s working with tones associated to fire and candlelight the image feels warm. The streetlights/car lights below infer a river of light, and the highlights on the woman’s shoulders make her radiant — and hence the viewer feel radiant as well.
John French Sloan also establishes distance with the clouds. Though he was considered part of the Ashcan school of art, he disliked being “confined” to a genre that was defined largely by the nature of its content as opposed to the techniques used. With that in mind, I suspect part of the reason his cityscapes are so dramatic is not because a city is necessarily inherently dramatic, but because he was considering his subjects in the context of european landscapes throughout time immemorial and attempting to claim that same awe for the period he lived in.