While conducting preliminary research regarding McSorley’s Old Ale House for my Greenwich Village Digital Exhibit, I was reminded of the paintings of John Sloan that I learned about in my Early 20th Century American Art History course from my undergraduate studies. Though it seems Sloan did not spend much time at McSorley’s over the years, there being only ten accounts of his actually being present there, his series of paintings depicting the interior of McSorley’s Old Ale House became and have remained a large part of it’s history.
A native of Pennsylvania, Sloan moved to New York City at the age of thirty-three in 1904. He immediately set up residence in Greenwich Village, and proceeded to capture the essence of New York City life through what would become many of his most famous works. Among these, the McSorley’s series, a set of five paintings created between the years of 1912 and 1930.
For men, until 1970 when women were eventually admitted to enter into McSorley’s, the ale house provided, as their motto states, a space for “Good Ale, Raw Onions, and No Ladies.” Even throughout the Prohibition years, McSorley’s thrived and continued to serve their famous ale unabashedly. Of his McSorley’s Saturday Night painting, completed in 1930 at the height of prohibition, Sloan says:
“Here we have McSorley’s during the dark days of prohibition. Had all saloons been conducted with the dignity and decorum of McSorley’s, prohibition could have never been brought about. Saloons could not have been closed. McSorley’s never was closed. An example of the triumph of right over might. The mugs became smaller, the prices higher, the crowd greater. Painted from blessed memory.” (Holcolm, “McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon”)
The atmosphere depicted in McSorley’s Saturday Night is one of a congenial and crowded space, the popularity and familiarity of the space depicted quite clearly. He has created an atmosphere and a mood felt within McSorley’s that seems authentically felt by all of the patrons depicted, all of who are reminiscent of the figures seen in his earlier McSorley’s works.
McSorley’s Saturday Night being the last in the series of five paintings depicting the saloon, it embodies the crowded and roaring side of McSorley’s not seen in the earlier works. The first of the series, McSorley’s Back Room focuses simply, as the title tells us, the back room of the saloon. The painting contains only three figures, and focuses on one small area of the larger McSorley’s space. Created within the piece is a quiet, reflective, and almost solitary environment, and yet the comfort and familiarity of the space is definitely evident. Though not the lively Saturday Night atmosphere, this side of McSorley’s shared with us by Sloan, sets the stage for his depiction of genuine moments and interactions observed while at McSorley’s.
The second painting in the series, McSorley’s Bar, became the most widely know of them all. Again, there are few figures present in the space; however, the view of the scene is of the front room, bar area of McSorley’s. Through embodying figures of the owners themselves, as well as regulars of the saloon, he has again created a feeling of distinct familiarity. When interviewed by Time magazine shortly before his death, “Sloan admitted that as a artist he was interested ‘in something the people in a place, something about the mood,'” (Holcolm, “McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon”) and his McSorley’s series is a great testament to his ability to authentically capture the people and the mood of a particular place.
Holcolm, Grant, “John Sloan and ‘McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon,'” The American Art Journal, Vol. 15, No. 2, (Spring, 1983), pp. 4-20. Kennedy Galleries, Inc. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1594332