John Sloan’s Newspaper Illustrations
July 21, 2015
This summer The Puzzling World of John Sloan features the artist’s inventive and challenging puzzles for the Philadelphia Press. Produced between 1900 and 1910, these puzzles represent the second half of Sloan’s extraordinary career as a newspaper illustrator—a career that encompassed portraiture, sketches of newsworthy events, story illustrations, full-color designs for the Sunday supplement, and even cartoons. Newspaper work was Sloan’s primary means of support from 1892 to 1904, and the artist rapidly distinguished himself in the field.
Like most newspaper illustrators, when he joined the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1892, Sloan was tasked with producing portraits of famous people and covering unfolding stories. His efforts were rarely signed and rarely significant. The portraits were probably copied from photographs and everything was drawn in a generic “house” style. Then, in a series of illustrations of outdoor life in the summer of 1894, Sloan introduced a bold new approach that combined his knowledge of Japanese prints with the “poster style” emerging in Europe and the United States. His first illustration in this style, On the Court at Wissahickon Heights, appeared in the Inquirer on June 10, 1894. More decorative than informative, with its expanse of blank white space, long fluid lines, and zones of precise patterning, On the Court is refreshing amid the columns of text and busy, cross-hatched images. This quickly became a signature style, reserved primarily for fiction and society notices in the Sunday paper, and garnered Sloan his first national review, when he was profiled in the Inland Printer that fall. Sloan’s elegant pictures attracted the rival Philadelphia Press, which lured him to their art department late in 1895.
With Sloan and other talented illustrators—including, at various times, his friends William Glackens, Everett Shinn, and George Luks—the Press became a leader in innovative illustration. Before the turn of the century, the Press added a color section that would regularly feature Sloan’s puzzles and other full-page color illustrations on Sundays. With the aid of a summer at the New York Herald in 1898, Sloan learned how to work in ink and watercolor for color reproduction via the Benday process. His mature efforts, in the puzzles and other Sunday pages, are characterized by beautiful women, sumptuous patterns, and sinuous lines, seen here in The Sunday Press Free Lesson in Music: No.12 from 1903. Here, as in the Halloween Puzzle, a gorgeous woman is the visual focus, though she’s basically beside the point: the man at the far right plays the piano, in keeping with the theme of the music lesson, which was explained in the surrounding text and graphics.
Sloan’s illustrations also accompanied serialized fiction, including “The Genial Idiot,” a tale by John Kendrick Bangs, published in the Press in the fall of 1903. The artist’s friend Will Bradner, a violinist in the Philadelphia Symphony Society, modeled for the boardinghouse bore of the title, shown here offering his arm to the lovely woman in the center. Sloan’s humorous pictures perfectly capture the story’s personalities and interactions in a manner consistent with the best magazine illustrations of period. Such accomplished illustrations allowed Sloan to make the transition to magazine work when the Press adopted a syndicated Sunday supplement a few months later. Sloan would continue to design weekly word puzzles for the Press but his career as a newspaper illustrator was coming to an end. To find magazine commissions and focus on painting, he moved to New York in 1904.
The Delaware Art Museum owns about 70 original illustrations by Sloan for the Inquirer and the Press, and I’ve spent much of the past month trying to identify the publication details for each one. After weeks of scrolling through newsprint on line and on microfilm, I can say without reservation that Sloan was among the most innovative and exciting newspaper illustrators working at the turn of the century.
Heather Campbell Coyle
Curator of American Art