The latest exhibit to open at the Hyde Collection gives us a rooftop glimpse at the lives of those who were hanging on at the lower floors of society.
“From the Rooftops: John Sloan and the Art of a New Urban Space,” brings together scenes of people taking a moment to sunbathe, men caring for pigeons, women hanging up the laundry and families escaping the heat of their tenement apartments to sleep out in the open.
“I think of Sloan as a reporter painter. He started as an etcher, a maker of print illustrations for newspapers. His scenes are sort of quick, printerly sketches that capture elements of the narrative and quickly tell the story,” said Jonathan Canning, the director of curatorial affairs and programming.
Sloan started out as a commercial artist in the late 1800s, working for the art departments of the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Press. Around the same time, he studied drawing at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and painting scenes from around the city.
In 1904, as newspapers pivot to using photography to illustrate articles, Sloan moved to New York City.
“He gets to New York and he notices this world up on rooftops and then he becomes the reporter of it. So he focuses in on the different uses [tenement dwellers] put to the outdoor space that they have access to,” Canning said.
Working from his studio in Greenwich Village, perched on the 11th floor, he captured scenes like “Red Kimono on the Roof” in which a woman wrapped in a bright red kimono hangs plain-colored laundry against the drab, grey background of the roof.
In “A Roof in Chelsea,” he captures a flock of pigeons swirling around a rooftop, as a child cheers, a woman leans against a clothesline, and figures just out of sight appear to sunbathe.
There a sense of joy to it, not only with the movement of the piece, but with the colors. Sloan hasn’t painted the neighboring buildings in an expected grey but in blues, reds and soft yellows.
In some of his etchings, Sloan depicts lovers sunbathing together or what seems like whole neighborhoods coming up to the roof to sleep.
When one thinks of today’s rooftop gardens and rooftop basketball courts, it seems like a modern concept.
“We think of this as a new phenomenon, buildings with decks off the back and green roofs, and yet, they were doing this in the early twentieth century. They had realized that they could utilize the rooftops for all these purposes,” Canning said.
Shortly after Sloan began working in NYC and creating these rooftop scenes, he became an important figure in the Ashcan School, a movement that focused on portraying daily urban life in some of the poorest neighborhoods.
Organized by The Palmer Museum of Art at Pennsylvania State University, “From the Rooftops” includes nearly 30 of Sloan’s works as well as 30 of his contemporaries, like paintings by William Glackens and Charles Hoffbauer, photographs by Walter Rosenblum and Weegee, and prints by Armin Landeck and others.
One of the standout prints in the exhibition was created by Martin Lewis, another contemporary of Sloan.
“It’s this elegantly dressed woman walking off a dark rooftop into the lighted stairwell to go down and she’s just lit by [that] light. The rest of it is this velvety black rooftop and the buildings around, with some highlights of electric lighting from other buildings,” Canning said.
In another stunning scene, painted by Cecil Bell, a family watches from a rooftop as lighting breaks across the sky, illuminating other towering buildings in the city.
There’s a sense of foreboding to the sky that’s combated by the comforting glow of electric lights from the city’s streets and windows.
“From the Rooftops” complements the Hyde’s two other exhibitions well, “Albert Flanagan: The Towering City” and “A Magical World: The Art of Jacob Houston.”
“In planning the show, I used the ‘Jacob Houston’ and ‘Flanagan’ [shows] to introduce the topic of John Sloan and the urban setting,” Canning said.
The Flanagan and Houston exhibitions will only be up until June 23, while “From the Rooftops” will carry on in the Wood Gallery until September 15. For more info visit hydecollection.org.
If you go:
From 9-10 a.m. on Saturday, the Hyde, in partnership with Summit Yoga will present Art and Yoga. Attendees can join in a relaxing workout inspired by “From the Rooftops: John Sloan and the Art of a New Urban Space.” Attendees must bring their own yoga mats. $10 for members, $12 for non-members. RSVP by contacting 518-792-1761 ext. 310 or [email protected]
Starting at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Adam M. Thomas, curator of American Art at the Palmer Museum of Art, Pennsylvania State University will present a lecture about “From the Rooftops: John Sloan and the Art of a New Urban Space. RSVP by contacting 518-792-1761 ext. 310 or [email protected]