The Artist’s Vision: John Sloan’s Self-Portraits
December 7, 2017
At a recent gallery program organized by the Delaware Art Museum, I had the wonderful opportunity to witness the power of close looking and dialogue brought together in an art gallery. On November 2nd and 5th, I led the inaugural Inside Look Series, consisting of informal participatory dialogues about a work of art for an extended period of time. The focus of my talk was John Sloan’s self-portraits in the DAM exhibition An American Journey: The Art of John Sloan. Thanks to the insightful questions and comments from the talk’s enthusiastic audience, I developed some thoughts about Sloan’s self-portraits, especially related to the issue of vision.
The very first painting John Sloan made was his 1890 self-portrait, when he was eighteen years old. It is a bust portrait that offers a blunt depiction of the young untrained artist: the face appears frontally illuminated, as if ready for scientific scrutiny, while body and background dissolve in shades of dark brown and black. The frontal illumination promises the rewarding encounter of psychological information to unveil the character of the sitter. Yet a blank face rejects any attempt for introspection. But his eyes, so perfectly placed in the center of the canvas, stare at the viewer behind his glasses. The optical device that he is wearing has a minimal quality, in which the most visible element is the metal wire that ties the two pieces of glass together. The glasses only become visible with the reflection of the spotlight falling on the sitter’s face. It is the focus on his intense gaze mediated by these crystal clear glasses that seemingly makes a statement of the young artist’s faith in his nascent artistic vision.
Fast forward twenty-two years, and you get Sloan’s Self-Portrait in Gray Shirt as a record of his coming of age. Sloan was already forty years old and had not painted any self-portrait with oil on canvas since 1894, but he was creating some of his best work now—and he knew it. What he captures with this work is a much more confident individual at the peak of his career. He appears again centered in this self-portrait, but now his raised left arm denotes ongoing activity. Although the hand is off the frame, the viewer can imagine that the missing hand is painting what the mirror reflects for the artist. None of the tools the artist is using to execute the portrait are visible, like the paint brushes and easel. Yet his clever depiction of white paint stains on his tie and shirt reveals the play of things hidden and things hinted at, with a finished work of art hanging in the background and framing his head to indicate his prowess as an artist. The painting is likely to be Six O’Clock, Winter, painted a few days earlier in February of that year and seen in a mirrored view. The vibrant original colors of this busy street life scene have been hushed down to enhance the sculptural depiction of the face, where both the pointy end of the nose and the glasses are confidently displayed. This portrait shows how the shy teenager has become a confident professional who captures his artistic enterprise with wit.
Finally, the last self-portrait that Sloan painted in 1946 out of his production of fourteen is Self-Portrait, Pipe and Brown Jacket, made when he was seventy-four years old. This work came after he was admitted to the Academy of Arts & Letters in 1942. Posing in a three-quarter profile with wide-open eyes, the artist shows an awareness unexpected from a man who suffered for years from a delicate health condition. Shortly after his marriage to Helen Farr in 1944, he underwent surgery for an eye ailment that impacted his vision for decades. In this work, then, the rejuvenated artist depicts himself with a frank gaze surrounded by enlivening elements. The brown jacket painted with directional brush strokes in the style of Vincent van Gogh and the vibrating abstract background that combines turquoise blue and several shades of green animate his figure. Moreover, the gray hair falls down in waves with a life of its own, as a visualization of the artist’s renewed vigor. The most striking feature is the glassless eyes, making the artist appear in his last self-portrait as the most transparent of them all.
These three self-portraits reveal how Sloan perceived himself in what he chose to share or not with the viewer. From the more simplified portrait in 1890 to the work providing the most clues about his artistic activity in 1912, the artist chose to conclude his series of self-portraits with the painting from 1946 where he has become a work of art and his true vision of himself.
Alba Campo Rosillo
Doctoral Student, University of Delaware
- Alba Campo Rosillo giving her Inside Look Series Presentation on November 2nd, 2017. Photograph taken by Kristen Nassif.
- John Sloan, Self-Portrait, 1890. Oil on window shade, 14 x 11 7/8 inches. Delaware Art Museum, Gift of Helen Farr Sloan, 1970. ©Delaware Art Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
- John Sloan, Self-Portrait, Gray Shirt, 1912. Oil on canvas, 35 × 24 inches. Gift of Helen Farr Sloan, 1980. © Delaware Art Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
- John Sloan, Self-Portrait, Pipe and Brown Jacket, 1946. Casein tempera underpaint with oil-varnish glaze on panel. 16 × 12 1/8 inches. Delaware Art Museum, Gift of Helen Farr Sloan, 1986. © Delaware Art Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
John Sloan, Portraits And Places: April 30-May 28, 1988. New York: Kraushaar Galleries, 1988.
Heather Campbell Coyle, “Self-Portrait, Gray Shirt, 1912,” catalogue entry in An American Journey: The Art Of John Sloan, exhibition catalog. Wilmington: Delaware Art Museum, 2017.
Anthony Bond, Joanna Woodall, T. J. Clark, L. J. Jordanova, and Joseph Leo Koerner. Self Portrait: Renaissance To Contemporary. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2006.
Michael Lobel, John Sloan: Drawing On Illustration. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.
John Loughery, John Sloan, Painter and Rebel. New York: H. Holt, 1995.
Wendy Wick Reaves, Reflections/Refractions: Self-Portraiture In The Twentieth Century. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2009.
John Sloan, John Sloan’s New York Scene; From The Diaries, Notes, And Correspondence, 1906-1913. New York: Harper & Row, 1965.
 Identification made by Heather Campbell Coyle, DAM Curator of American Art in “Self-Portrait, Gray Shirt, 1912,” catalogue entry in An American Journey: The Art Of John Sloan, exhibition catalog. Wilmington: Delaware Art Museum, 2017.