Hair Flying, Clothes Drying

This is a late weigh-in on the N-YHS’s 100th anniversary of the Armory Show. Indulge me. Nudes, of course, were the peak experience. You could stand three feet away from Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase; then turn on your heel 180 degrees and find yourself face-to-face with Henri Matisses’s Blue Nude. (Can this ever have been thought so offensive that the painter was burned in effigy?) But one of the show’s most sensual paintings, to my way of thinking, was John Sloan’s Women Washing Their Hair. (Shown above.) Sloan, as we know if we read this blog, was one of “The Eight,” the name given to the non-comformist illustrators and artists of the Ashcan School of painting that came of age in this city during the early Nineteen Hundreds. Their subjects were not socialites, but working people caught actually working or playing or, as in the case of the women above, luxuriating in a leisure moment. They’re probably immigrant girls who have worked six days a week in a sweatshop and are spending their free Sunday afternoon grooming. Catch that hair flying and the clothes drying. The movement in this piece is sensational.

A number of Sloan’s paintings deal with tenement life. (He lived in one and it was a convenient point from which to observe the neighbors.) Fortunately, he was as deft with a pen and he was with a paintbrush. Witness the diary entry below:

Started to paint from memory of the Wind and Dust Storm that we saw and felt Sunday. Across the backyards in a room on the second floor I saw a baby die in its mother’s arms. The men of the house powerless, helpless, stupid. She held it in her arms after it had started to pale and stiffen. Hope tried to fight off Fact, then Fact killed hope in her. They took it from her. The men smoked their pipes – sympathetic with her anguish and trying to reason her back to calmness. A bottle of whiskey, and a drink for her. I could hear nothing – but the acting was perfect.

John Sloan
June 11, 1906

(New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009. p. 187.)