John Sloan, Movies

When movies were new and lights transformed the darkened city streets.

John Sloan, Movies, 1913, oil on canvas, 50.5 x 61 cm (Toledo Museum of Art)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re in the Toledo Museum of Art, standing in front of a small painting by John Sloan. It’s called “Movies,” and it dates to 1913. What we’re actually seeing is not the movie itself, but the street in front of the theater.

Dr. Lawrence W. Nichols: [0:20] Clusters of New Yorkers — a man and a woman, two women, a man with a hat on leaning against the wall, two men in the lower right, one looking over his shoulder, three children in the foreground. In other words, clusters of individuals in front of a movie marquee.

Dr. Zucker: [0:36] They’re not specific people. We can’t identify their individual features, but they do seem to represent types of people.

Dr. Nichols: [0:44] They’re dabs of paint that represent eyes or mouth or a nose. We’re told more about who they are and what they’re thinking by what they’re wearing and their gestures.

Dr. Zucker: [0:54] If we were to make a general statement about these people and this place, it would be that they’re working-class people. According to at least one art historian, this was located on Carmine Street in the West Village.

Dr. Nichols: [1:06] What Sloan has done is brightly illuminated a pyramidal shape with gaslight. What he’s featuring is the words “A Romance of the Harem.” We can describe Sloan as a New York realist. In 1908, he first exhibited with a group called The Eight, which came to be known as the Ashcan School. They painted what they saw on the streets of New York.

Dr. Zucker: [1:31] They chose to paint it with a grittiness and a quality of urban life that was really distinct from the prevailing style of the day. I’m thinking about the work of American Impressionists that had borrowed the techniques of Europe and brought them to American soil.

[1:46] The Ashcan artists are dealing not with the broad avenues of New York, but they’re dealing with the more narrow streets of the neighborhoods.

Dr. Nichols: [1:54] Often taking unglamorous subjects: boxing matches, prostitutes, people going to see “A Romance of the Harem.”

Dr. Zucker: [2:02] The idea of going to a movie house in New York was really only a few years old. These places were considered low, this was not high culture. Part of that was because of the lasciviousness, because of the sexually charged subject matter that was on display.

Dr. Nichols: [2:16] The Ziegfeld Follies just began. This is the age of the Hoochie Coochie — the provocative belly dance — the age of the burlesque. This was the age of becoming more aware of things happening outside of the United States.

[2:30] There was this interest in, “What am I going to see on the screen when I go in there?” and all accentuated by bright lights and pockets of darkness. What goes on in that darkness after you see such a movie?

Dr. Zucker: [2:44] There’s a kind of voyeurism for us as we look at these people looking at each other.

Dr. Nichols: [2:48] This fellow leaning against the marquee with a bright light on his hat, he’s wearing a whitish necktie, hands in his pant pockets, taking it all in. Not missing a thing, or being missed.

Dr. Zucker: [3:01] But with a slight menacing quality, in that he’s one of the only figures here that is unaccompanied.

Dr. Nichols: [3:07] This painting is also about suggestiveness. Of what we’re seeing but what we’re not seeing.

Dr. Zucker: [3:13] You said a moment ago that John Sloan was interested — and New York as a whole, American culture, was increasingly interested — in European developments. John Sloan in 1913 was part of a committee that put on the Armory Show. This was an exhibition of advanced American art, but also of advanced art in Europe, and it became a sensation.

Dr. Nichols: [3:33] It was the first exhibit that made America aware of the movement called Cubism, a very important show. Sloan and his cohorts, Robert Henri and others, were very active in bringing to an American public an awareness of what was going on in Europe.

Dr. Zucker: [3:51] Sloan’s interest in working-class people should be no surprise. By 1913 he had become a socialist, and he had become the artistic director for a periodical called “The Masses.”

Dr. Nichols: [4:02] Gritty actuality of urban America, that’s what Sloan is capturing.

Dr. Zucker: [4:07] You see it in his open brushwork. You see the movement, the vitality of the city. Even the architecture seems unstable, as if the buildings themselves are shifting and moving as they appear and disappear into the night.

Dr. Nichols: [4:20] John Sloan’s “The Movies.”

[4:22] [music]

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Cite this page as: Dr. Lawrence W. Nichols, Toledo Museum of Art and Dr. Steven Zucker, "John Sloan, Movies," in Smarthistory, April 9, 2019, accessed April 18, 2024,