NARRATOR: This painting by John Sloan is called Backyards, Greenwich Village.
ADAMWEINBERG: I’m Adam Weinberg, the Alice Pratt Brown Director of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
The painting is a wonderful view out of his studio window on Perry Street, just eight blocks from the current site of the Whitney Museum. And this is a view of a rather poor neighborhood, but he shows it with a sense of energy and glee. You have children who are building a snowman sketched in the background, a cat who has actually the most remarkable shadow painted next to it, that’s trudging lithely through the whiteness of the snow. But probably the highlights of this painting are the little girl in the window with this great smile and her ruby lips and her bright eyes, and the cat who is dead center in the foreground, who actually looks a lot like the little girl in the window, with an equally big smile.
NARRATOR: To modern eyes, this painting may almost seem sentimental. But at the time, American artists typically painted more “elevated” subjects—like society portraits, landscapes, and classical scenes. Sloan’s focus on life in the tenements—laundry and all—was quite progressive for his time. Many of the artists that Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney championed shared this focus on the realities of urban life. Their subject matter—as well as the dark, smoky palette they often favored—prompted critics to call them The Ashcan School.