John Sloan was noted for his realist representations of life in New York City’s poor immigrant neighborhoods. Painted in 1922, this nocturnal vista of Lower Manhattan, seen from the roof of his Greenwich Village studio, is regarded as the culmination of Sloan’s city scenes. In his own description of the picture, Sloan stated that it “makes a record of the beauty of the older city which is giving way to the chopped-out towers of the modern New York.” Sloan has commented on the artifice of the modern city by including the Moonshine advertisement on a building at the lower left. This fictional brand is a reference to the illicitly distilled and distributed liquor that was popular during Prohibition. The truncated moon graphic evokes what the city’s artificial electric lighting so effectively obscures: natural moonlight. Despite Sloan’s critical attitude toward urban modernization, the painting possesses a magical quality, as one looks over the elevated train tracks on Greenwich Village’s lower Sixth Avenue toward the eerily illuminated skyscrapers—the Woolworth Building and Singer Tower—on the horizon.
Painted in 1922, The City from Greenwich Village is closely related to a number of John Sloan’s earlier paintings, and is the culmination of his many views of New York City. The painting’s special significance to the artist is evidenced by the fact that there are more preparatory drawings associated with this work than any of his other pictures. Sloan’s book, Gist of Art, provides a lengthy description of The City from Greenwich Village:
Looking south over lower Sixth Avenue from the roof of my Washington Place studio, on a winter evening. The distant lights of the great office buildings downtown are seen in the gathering darkness. The triangular loft building on the right had contained my studio for three years before. Although painted from memory it seems thoroughly convincing in its handling of light and space. The spot on which the spectator stands is now an imaginary point since all the buildings as far as the turn of the elevated have been removed, and Sixth Avenue has been extended straight down to the business district. The picture makes a record of the beauty of the older city which is giving way to the chopped-out towers of the modern New York.
John Sloan, The Gist of Art, 3rd ed. (New York, 1977), 267.
Unlike the majority of Sloan’s earlier and more spontaneously executed realist paintings that represent episodes in the daily lives of New Yorkers, the subject of The City from Greenwich Village is the city itself. This panoramic aerial view from the roof of Sloan’s studio apartment at 88 Washington Place, where he lived from 1915 to 1927, shows lower Sixth Avenue on a rainy evening as an elevated train turns the corner at Third Street and heads north. The viewer’s eye is led over the picturesque rooftops to the distant upper left, where brilliantly illuminated skyscrapers are silhouetted on the horizon. The taller one, on the left, is the 60-story gothic revival Woolworth Building (completed in 1913, designed by Cass Gilbert, and the world’s tallest building at that time), and at its right is the Singer Tower (1908).
The Singer Tower had briefly been the world’s tallest building until 1909, when a 700-foot tower was added to the Metropolitan Life Insurance Building on Madison Avenue between 23rd and 24th Streets.
Sloan included the elevated train in a number of important early paintings, in which it serves as a backdrop for some aspect of human activity.
Examples are Election Night in Herald Square (1907, Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, New York), Sixth Avenue and Thirtieth Street (1907, Philadelphia Museum of Art), and Six O’Clock, Winter (1912, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC). The later Sixth Avenue Elevated at Third Street (1928, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) shows the bend of the El from the south, looking north toward the Jefferson Market.
David W. Scott, “The City from Greenwich Village,” Studies in the History of Art 4 (1971–1972), 108–111, has noted that this similarity is especially evident in the preparatory sketches, and has further observed that the rooftop vista devoid of human activity is characteristic of Sunset, West Twenty-Third Street (1906, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska), and Rainbow, New York City (1912, private collection).
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of The City from Greenwich Village is Sloan’s skillful combination of natural and artificial light. The dim haze of the city is punctuated by numerous sources of electric light from the shop windows, a streetlight, and the headlights of the train and a car that are in turn reflected off the rainy surfaces of the street and buildings. The eminent historian of American art Lloyd Goodrich has noted that Sloan painted cityscapes “from a poetic viewpoint like that of the landscapist,” and observed how, in this particular work, the artist has achieved “a subtler and deeper realization of night color than any of his early works, which seem almost monochromatic by comparison.”
Lloyd Goodrich, John Sloan (New York 1952), 54.
Rowland Elzea, John Sloan’s Oil Paintings: A Catalogue Raisonné, 2 vols. (Newark, DE, 1991) 2:258, notes this double meaning.
In his article on The City from Greenwich Village, David W. Scott analyzes the five preparatory studies in the Gallery’s collection and concludes that it is impossible to place them in chronological order and definitively trace the evolution of the composition
The artist’s wife, Helen Farr Sloan, donated the drawings to the National Gallery of Art in 1971 and 1972. E. John Bullard has suggested that one of them “may have been a preparatory study for an etching, which Sloan never did” (David W. Scott and E. John Bullard, John Sloan 1871–1951 [Washington, DC, 1971], 169). David W. Scott, “The City from Greenwich Village,” Studies in the History of Art 4 (1971–1972), 108 n. 3, has cited Helen Farr Sloan’s opinion that her husband “sometimes prepared precise drawings for transfer to an etching plate, he remarked that too much detail was a deterrent to freedom, so he may have changed his mind about making an etching after working on the complex subject.”
David W. Scott, “The City from Greenwich Village,” Studies in the History of Art (1971–1972), 115 n. 14. Scott notes that the Golden Section is also used in another of Sloan’s paintings capturing Greenwich Village’s inimitable ambience: Bleecker Street, Saturday Night (1918, private collection).
The detailed account of the painting that Sloan gives in Gist of Art implied that he wanted to illustrate how modernization, in the form of skyscrapers and public mass transportation systems such as elevated trains, had destroyed Greenwich Village’s formerly intimate, 19th-century ambience. The artist had lived in the Village—New York’s bohemian neighborhood—from 1912 to 1935, and during those years he had the opportunity to observe the changes wrought by urban renovation; many of the houses that he found “small and old fashioned”
Diary entry of July 8, 1908, quoted in David W. Scott, “The City from Greenwich Village,” Studies in the History of Art (1971–1972), 115.
John Sloan, Notes (unpublished, recorded by Helen Farr Sloan), John Sloan Trust, Delaware Art Museum, 142. Quoted in Rowland Elzea, John Sloan’s Oil Paintings: A Catalogue Raisonné, 2 vols. (Newark, DE, 1991) 2:257.
Although Sloan may not have extolled New York's transformation into a modern metropolis in The City from Greenwich Village, neither did he completely condemn it. Despite Sloan's negative description of new buildings as “chopped out towers,” there is nothing particularly sinister in his depiction of lower Manhattan’s skyscrapers. On the contrary, The City from Greenwich Village possesses a magical quality that has led John Loughery to equate it with the Emerald City of Oz.
John Loughery, John Sloan: Painter and Rebel (New York, 1995), 261. Some skyscrapers were considered more aesthetically pleasing than others. For instance, Will Irwin, Highlights of Manhattan (New York, 1927), 16–17, noted that the Woolworth Building was widely admired as the “Cathedral of Commerce” and considered by many to be “the most beautiful new structure in Manhattan,” while the Singer Tower was criticized for resembling “all too much one of those garish embroideries which Mr. Singer used to exhibit in the windows of his branch agencies to show what his machine could do.”
Susan Danly Walther, The Railroad in the American Landscape: 1850–1950 (Wellesley, MA, 1981), 120, has pointed out that Stieglitz had dealt with a similar theme in his photogravure Old and New New York (1910, Metropolitan Museum of Art), which was illustrated in Camera Work 36 (Oct. 1911), plate VI.
September 29, 2016
lower left: John Sloan
The artist [1871-1951]; his estate; gift 1970 to NGA.
- Sixth Annual Exhibition of The Society of Independent Artists, Waldorf Astoria, New York, March-April 1922, no. 701, as The City from Greenwich.
- Twenty-First Annual International Exhibition of Paintings, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, April-June 1922, no. 108, as The City, from Greenwich.
- Baltimore Charcoal Club, 1923.
- Tenth Annual Exhibition of Paintings by American Artists, Detroit Institute of Art, 1924, no. 30.
- First Pan-American Exhibition of Oil Paintings, Los Angeles Museum, 1925-1926.
- Thirty-Eighth Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture, Art Institute of Chicago, 1925, no. 200, as New York from Greenwich Village.
- Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition: Paintings, Sculpture and Prints in the Department of Fine Arts, Philadelphia Museum of Art, June-December 1926, no. 280.
- The Tenth Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Oil Paintings, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, April-May 1926, no. 259, as The City from Greenwich.
- Grand Central Gallery, New York, 1932.
- John Sloan, Montross Gallery, New York, 1934, no. 14.
- John Sloan: Retrospective Exhibition, Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts, 1938, no. 18, repro.
- 46th Annual Exhibition, Nebraska Art Association, Lincoln, March-April 1939, no. 39.
- The Forty-Sixth Annual Exhibition of American Art, Cincinnati Art Museum, October-November 1939, no. 132.
- John Sloan, Art Department, University of Missouri, Columbia, 1940.
- Oil Paintings by John Sloan, Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire, January 1940.
- American Landscape Painting: George Inness to George Bellows, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts, May 1941, no. 18.
- Fort Worth Art Association, March 1941.
- Living American Painters, John Herron Art Museum, Indianapolis, February 1943, no. 53.
- Romantic Painting in America, Museum of Modern Art, New York, followed by other venues as a traveling exhibition, 1943-1945, no. 184, repro.
- Artists of the Philadelphia Press: William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn, John Sloan, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1945, no. 63.
- John Sloan: Painting and Prints. Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Retrospective, Carpenter Galleries, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, 1946, no. 12.
- John Sloan Paintings, Dayton Art Institute, April 1948.
- John Sloan: Retrospective Exhibition, Kraushaar Galleries, New York, February 1948, no. 20, repro.
- The Turn of the Century: American Artists 1890-1920, Des Moines Art Center, 1949, unnumbered catalogue.
- John Sloan 1871-1951, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio, 1952, no. 52, repro.
- Oil Paintings by John Sloan, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, November-December 1961, no. 7.
- The Life and Times of John Sloan, Delaware Art Center, Wilmington, September-October 1961, no. 29, repro.
- The Art of John Sloan 1871-1951, Walker Art Museum, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, 1962, no. 46, repro.
- John Sloan 1871-1951, National Gallery of Art, Washington; Georgia Museum of Art, Athens; M.H. DeYoung Memorial Museum, San Francisco; City Art Museum of St. Louis; Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, Ohio; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 1971-1972, no. 135, repro.
- John Sloan: Paintings, Prints, Drawings, traveling exhibition organized by Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, 6 venues, 1981-1983, no. 13, repro. (shown only in Hanover).
- The Railroad in the American Landscape: 1850-1950, Wellesley College Museum, Wellesley, Massachusetts, 1981, no. 53, repro.
- Japanese Artists Who Studied in [the] U.S.A. and The American Scene, National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, 1982, no. 78, color repro.
- Museo de los Museos: arte universal a través de los tiempos, Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City, 1984, no. 42, repro.
- Night Lights: 19th and 20th Century American Nocturne Paintings, The Taft Museum, Cincinnati, 1985, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- John Sloan: Spectator of Life, IBM Gallery of Science and Art, New York; Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington; Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio; Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, 1988, no. 97, repro.
- Seeing the City: Sloan's New York, Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington; Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg, Pennsylvania; David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago; Reynolda House, Museum of American Art, Winston-Salem, 2007-2009, unnumbered catalogue, fig. 52.
Exhibition History Notes
 According to the artist's records, the painting was "briefly" exhibited at the Grand Central Gallery; see the letter of 12 January 1970 from the artist's widow, Helen Sloan, to John Bullard of the NGA, in NGA curatorial files.
- Scott, David W. "The City from Greenwich Village." Studies in the History of Art 4 (1971-1972): 106-119, color repro.
- Scott, David W. John Sloan. New York, 1975: 162, color pl. 28.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1980: 223, repro.
- Simms, Patterson. John Sloan: A Concentration of Works from the Permanent Collection of the Whitney Museum of Art. New York, 1980: 20-21, repro.
- Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1980: 17, no. 55, color repro.
- Williams, William James. A Heritage of American Paintings from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1981: 209, repro. 210-211, color repro. 224.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 572, no. 876, color repro.
- Catchpole, Hubert R. “The Cover.” Journal of the American Medical Association 257 (24 April 1987): 2125, cover repro.
- Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. Rev. ed. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1988: 170, no. 62, color repro.
- Elzea, Rowland. John Sloan’s Oil Paintings: A Catalogue Raisonné. 2 vols. Newark, 1991: 257-258, repro.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 337, repro.
- National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 250, repro.
- Dougherty, James. Walt Whitman and the Citizen's Eye. Baton Rouge, 1993: 264-266, fig. 12.
- Loughery John. John Sloan: Painter and Rebel. New York, 1995: 261-262.
- Lamia, Stephen. “Night." In Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography: Themes Depicted in Works of Art. Edited by Helene E. Roberts. 2 vols. Chicago, 1998: 2:657.
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 404, no. 334, color repro.