Halloween Puzzle by John Sloan

Although best known as a painter of incidents on the streets of New York, John Sloan began his career as a newspaper illustrator in Philadelphia. Starting in 1892 at the Inquirer, Sloan traveled the city and suburbs on assignment from the paper. He was not particularly fast at drawing—his friend Robert Henri joked that Sloan was the past tense of “slow”—but he developed a decorative style that served well for headings, advertisements, and illustrations for fiction and the society pages. His elegant newspaper style drew elements from Japanese prints, French posters, and art nouveau decorations. The stylish illustrations attracted attention, and he left the Inquirer for a better offer at the Philadelphia Press at the end of the 1890s.

halloween_puzzle The Press made good use of their new hire, putting him to work on their Sunday supplement. By 1900, his designs appeared as full-page, full-color puzzles. Each week the newspaper offered $10 to the first reader to solve a visual brainteaser conceived and designed by Sloan. The puzzles are incredibly varied and imaginative—and truly challenging. The simplest require finding elements hidden in the picture, while others necessitated cutting and pasting or wetting the paper to reach a solution. The challenges were intellectual as well as visual and mechanical. The 135 puzzles Sloan designed for the Press testify to his extraordinary creative energy.The published directions explain the goal of the Halloween Puzzlereproduced here:

  • Here we have a lady giving herself a Halloween party.
  • She has just thrown an apple paring over her shoulder.
  • Its meaning is not apparent until she finds that she can cut it into six letters that spell the name of her future husband.
  • Can you show how she cut the paring?

The name hidden in the apple peel is Oliver. The sinuous drawing and beautiful watercolor technique complement the ingenious impulse of the puzzle. Indeed, the puzzling aspect occupies only a small section of the picture; the elegant woman, in her fashionable gown, is provided purely for aesthetic pleasure. Such designs would provide Sloan’s most dependable source of income through 1911.

The Halloween Puzzle is the only original drawing the Delaware Art Museum owns for one of Sloan’s color puzzles. Most were probably destroyed after they were photographed for reproduction in the newspaper.

The Delaware Art Museum currently holds 112 of Sloan’s published puzzles—the actual newspaper sheets—in the John Sloan Manuscript Collection of the Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives. Over the past few years, Librarian Rachael DiEleuterio has been working with Museum supporter Paul Davis to catalogue this extensive collection of puzzles and track down the missing ones. The Museum is planning an exhibition devoted to this fascinating aspect of Sloan’s career.

Heather Campbell Coyle
Curator of American Art

Halloween Puzzle, 1901
John Sloan (1871–1951)
Watercolor, pen and ink, graphite on paper board, 22 3/8 x 22 inches
Gift of Helen Farr Sloan, 1981

This Curator Corner was posted on September 25, 2013.