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Scrubwomen, Astor Library

On view

Scrubwomen, Astor Library

Artist: John Sloan (American, 1871-1951)

Date: 1910-1911
Medium: Oil on canvas
Overall: 32 x 26in. (81.3 x 66cm)
Signed: l.r.: 'John Sloan'
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 58.87
Text Entries

In the spring of 1904 John Sloan moved from Philadelphia, where he had worked as a decorative illustrator for the Philadelphia newspapers for twelve years, to New York City, supporting himself and his wife by free-lance book and magazine illustrations. No longer bound by office hours, he was free to devote himself seriously to painting and to observing the rich and varied life of the city for the first time. In the years between 1904 and 1913, when the lessons Sloan learned from the Post-Impressionist paintings he saw in the Armory Show radically changed the philosophy and subject matter of his work, Sloan produced a body of paintings, drawings, and graphics, which express the profound joy he received from observing life around him. Sloan’s friend and mentor, Robert Henri, had recommended that Sloan and his fellow Philadelphians, George Luks, William Glackens, and Everett Shinn, paint subjects from real life because expression of the vitality of life was, in Henri’s estimation, the true aim of art. Because the life these artists painted was not that of the upper and middle classes, which was the subject matter painted by the popularly accepted painters of the day, their work caused a public sensation when it was shown in 1908 in the famous exhibition of the work of these artists and three friends, which has become known as the exhibition of The Eight.

The Utica picture is an excellent example of Sloan’s approach to his city life subjects. The healthy vitality and camaraderie of the three scrubwomen, who are the focus of the painting, is clearly what had attracted Sloan and not the library itself. There is not the slightest trace of any social commentary or criticism on Sloan’s part, just as there is none in most of his city life paintings. The lively and chattering scrubwomen violating the imposing silence and dignity of the library is characteristic of Sloan’s delicately barbed wit, which frequently appears in his city life subjects.

Sloan’s view of his subject is stated in his comment on the painting in his book, Gist of Art, where he wrote: “These jolly strong-arm women in the golden brown and musty surroundings of thousands of books aroused a strong urge to fix them on canvas. The result is very satisfactory to the painter.”(1) Sloan had gone to the Astor Library at 425 Lafayette Street, near Astor Place (now the Public Theater), with his friend, the artist John Butler Yeats, on May 26, 1910,(2) where he saw the scene that he began to paint a week later. All of Sloan’s city subjects were painted in the studio from memory or, occasionally, with reference to a sketch or two. He seems not to have made a sketch in the case of Scrubwomen, Astor Library. He worked on the painting from June 1 through June 4, 1910, and, on the 5th, noted in his diary: “A pleasant day of idleness, but since I have what I think is a pretty good picture, the result of the last three days work, I took the day off and felt right content.”(3) However, the next year, when Sloan was selecting work to exhibit with a group of his colleagues at the Union League Club, he encountered some difficulties in reworking the painting, recording in his diary: “Fussed with the Library picture to no good purpose, spoilt one of the heads.”(4) Obviously, he was able to save the situation as Scrubwomen, Astor Library is one of his most successful city paintings.



1. John Sloan, Gist of Art (New York: American Artists Group, 1939), p. 223.

2. Bruce St. John, ed., John Sloan’s New York Scene (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), p. 426.

3. Ibid., pp. 429-30.

4. Ibid., p. 518.


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