Conserving John Sloan

November 28, 2016

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Detail in raking light of Self-Portrait in Gray Shirt, 1912 John Sloan (1871–1951) Oil on canvas, 35 × 24 inches Delaware Art Museum, Gift of Helen Farr Sloan, 1980. © Delaware Art Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

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Self-Portrait in Gray Shirt, 1912 John Sloan (1871–1951) Oil on canvas, 35 × 24 inches Delaware Art Museum, Gift of Helen Farr Sloan, 1980. © Delaware Art Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Eleven months and counting! On October 21, 2017, the Delaware Art Museum will open An American Journey: The Art of John Sloan, the first career retrospective of Sloan’s work since 1988. This exhibition is pulled entirely from the Museum’s unparalleled collection of work by John Sloan, much of which was donated by the artist’s widow, Helen Farr Sloan (1911–2005). The show will include over 100 items—paintings, prints, illustrations, sketches, archival photographs, illustrated letters—from every stage of the artist’s career. There will be newspaper illustrations from the Philadelphia Inquirer, paintings and etchings of New York City, protest cartoons from The Masses, and colorful depictions of landscapes in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

One of the many things we’re doing to prepare for this show is to have works of art conserved so they will look terrific in the gallery and be preserved for future generations. One of the works needing conservation is a personal favorite, Sloan’s Self-Portrait in Gray Shirt. Dating from 1912, this painting shows Sloan at the height of his powers as a painter. The self-portrait is painted rapidly, with lively, expressive brushwork. Just look at the broad strokes that indicate his rumpled, gray-blue shirt and his dark necktie, knocked askew by the act of painting the picture. Note the artist’s intent yet confident gaze as he paints his reflection in a mirror.

However, if you look closely, today, you can see a cloudy film over the darker areas—especially in the necktie and above the artist’s shoulders. The varnish applied years ago to protect the canvas has begun to “delaminate” from the paint below it, becoming dull, pale, and opaque. The old varnish needs to be removed, and the painting should be revarnished with a layer of non-yellowing synthetic resin. This will rid the canvas of the distracting clouds of opaque varnish and allow us to see more detail, especially in the dark areas.

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Girl’s Eye View, 1945 John Sloan (1871–1951) Oil on Masonite, 16 x 19 7/8 inches Delaware Art Museum, Gift of Helen Farr Sloan, 1980. © Delaware Art Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Another painting in need of conservation for An American Journey is the charming Girl’s Eye View, a 1945 work depicting Helen Farr Sloan painting with a sketch box in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This picture captures the renewed energy and interest in painting that Sloan found after his marriage to fellow artist and former student Helen Farr. Girl’s Eye View still has its original natural resin varnish, which is now dull and yellowed. I can’t wait to see it cleaned and revarnished. This should better reveal the artist’s color choices, which were often bold in his late career.

This kind of conservation requires the skills of a professional, so next year these paintings will be traveling to the studio of painting conservator Mark Bockrath for treatment. We hope you will contribute to funding the conservation for these paintings which are central to the story of John Sloan and his American journey.

Click the link below to donate to the conservation of these paintings for #GivingTuesday. Thank you for your support!

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Heather Campbell Coyle
Curator of American Art



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