Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy - Sunday, Women Drying Their Hair

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Image of Sunday, Women Drying Their Hair

John Sloan , (Aug 2, 1871–Sep 7, 1951)

Sunday, Women Drying Their Hair

26 1/8 in. x 32 1/8 in. (66.36 cm x 81.6 cm)

Medium and Support: Oil on canvas
Credit Line: Museum purchase
Accession Number: 1938.67


John Sloan described his 1912 painting, Sunday, Women Drying Their Hair, as “another of the human comedies which were regularly staged for my enjoyment by the humble roof-top players of Cornelia Street.” Sloan’s penchant for depicting the urban life of New York City was one he shared with fellow artists, William Glackens, Everett Shinn, and George Luks, all of whom started their careers as newspaper artists in Philadelphia. It was there that they studied with Robert Henri who urged them to depict everyday life as they experienced it directly and without idealization. This focus led critics to dub these artists the Ashcan Painters.

Based on observations made on walks through the city or spied through his Greenwich Village apartment windows which he committed to memory or caught in occasional quick sketches, Sloan’s vibrant, energized scenes were celebrations of the inhabitants and everyday events of his adopted New York City.

Addison Gallery of American Art: 65 Years - Catalogue Entry

John Sloan's diary for 10 May 1912 describes his move into an eleventh-floor studio at 35 Sixth Avenue at West 4th Street, overlooking Cornelia Street in New York City. In the previous eight years, since coming to New York from Philadelphia where he had earned his living as a newspaper artist, he had worked in a room in the apartments in which he and his wife, Dolly, had lived. His primary purpose in taking a separate and larger studio was to give him enough space to paint from the figure, a subject that would engage him from time to time throughout his career. It also provided him, however, with a vantage point from which he could continue the study of urban life; this, in addition to portraiture, had been the main focus of his work since the 1890s, in painting and graphic art as well as in the book and magazine illustrations from which he made his living until he began to teach in 1916.

Sloan's penchant for city life as a subject derived from his contact with the painter and teacher Robert Henri, whom he met in 1892 in Philadelphia. Henri urged Sloan and his fellow newspaper artists, William Glackens, Everett Shinn, and George Luks, to become painters and to depict everyday life as they experienced it, directly and without compromise, rejecting the idealizations of the academic and Impressionist artists then in vogue. This rejection was part of a larger debate current in the art world as to whether a distinctively American art should be developed, as Henri and others maintained, or European prototypes followed as the academics and Impressionists held. The success of the Henri-led exhibition of The Eight in 1908 and the Independent Artists Exhibition of 1910, in both of which Sloan participated, seemed to insure the victory of the former until the tables were turned by the European modernist works shown in the International Exhibition of Modem Art in New York, known as the Armory Show, in 1913.

Sloan had found his slice-of-life subject matter by walks through the city and observation from his apartment windows, working from memory or occasional quick sketches rather from the scene itself. This was the process used in painting Sunday, Women Drying Their Hair, about which he wrote in his book, Gist of Art, in 1939: "Another of the human comedies which were regularly staged for my enjoyment by the humble roof-top players of Cornelia Street." Unfortunately, on 25 June 1912, Sloan stopped keeping the diary in which he had faithfully recorded the progress of his work since 1906; there is thus no detailed account of the creation of Sunday, Women Drying Their Hair, which must have been painted not long after, to judge from the light summer clothes that the women wear. It is reasonable, however, to assume that it followed a course similar to the creation of his earlier genre pictures: a day or two of the idea lying fallow in his mind, followed by a few days of relatively effortless execution of the fully developed mental image. His painting process was greatly aided by a system of using color that he had adopted in 1909. This had been developed by the artist Hardesty G. Maratta and was enthusiastically accepted by Henri, George Bellows, Sloan, and other painters of the Henri circle. The system went through many permutations both at the hands of its creator as well as its users over the years. Briefly stated, however, it involved a group of colors determined and mixed before the artist began to paint, called a "set" palette, which included the three colors that were to be dominant in the composition. This set palette employed Maratta's specially prepared paints, which packaged pure primary and secondary colors and the grayed hues thereof. The three dominant colors, called a "triad," were plotted on a diagram and were the only colors that could be used at full strength. Colors on the diagram falling outside the triangle formed by the triad were used either not at all or only as grayed hues. The triad used in Sunday, Women Drying Their Hair was yellow-orange, green, and purple, which appear in the hair, skirt, and bricks respectively. Full-intensity reds and blues were thus forbidden by the system but appear as neutralized hues in the blouse of one of the women and in the skin tones.

In addition to figure studies, Sloan painted several other rooftop pictures in the next few months: another group of three women, Roof Gossips (Arizona State University, Tempe); a woman hanging out wash, Red Kimono on the Roof (Indianapolis Museum of Art); and two cityscapes—Rain, Roof Tops (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.) and Rainbow, New York City (Cheekwood Museum of Art). However, the lessons learned from the European modernist painters he saw early in 1913 in the Armory Show—primarily works by Lautrec, Matisse, and van Gogh—would soon lead him away from the relative innocence of his genre painting to a more sophisticated approach. There is a certain piquancy in the fact that Sloan selected Sunday, Women Drying Their Hair as one of his exhibits in the Armory Show—marking the end of one phase of his career and the beginning of another.

Rowland Elzea, Addison Gallery of American Art: 65 Years, A Selective Catalogue (Andover, Massachusetts: Addison Gallery of American Art, 1996), pp. 468-69; revised by Kelley Tialiou, Charles H. Sawyer Curatorial Assistant | Librarian | Archivist

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