Unemployed by Ben Shahn

Unemployment by Ben Shahn

My featured artist today was quite unknown to me.  I came across him and his paintings when I was flicking through an art book looking for information regarding another painter.  One painting stood out from the rest and I have made it My Daily Art Display featured painting of today.  There was something very haunting about the picture with its great sense of realism and I had to find out more about the work and the artist, Ben Shahn.

Ben Shahn was at the forefront of the American Social Realist art movement of the 1930s, a grouping, which included the likes of artists of the Ashcan School, many of whom I have featured in earlier blogs.   Social Realism is a term used to describe visual and other realistic art works which record the everyday conditions of the working classes and mainly feature the life of the poor and deprived and how they had to live.  The works are a pictorial criticism of the social environment that brought about these conditions. Social Realism has its roots back in the mid-19th century and the Realist movement in French art.  Twentieth century Social Realism refers back to the works of the French artist such as Courbet and his painting Burial at Ornans or Millet’s great work The Gleaners.   Social Reailsm art became an important art movement in America during their Great Depression of the 1930’s.

The art of the Social Realist painters often depicted cityscapes homing in on the decaying state of mining villages or broken-down shacks alongside railroad tracks.  Their art is about poverty and the hardships endured by the ordinary but poor people.  Often the works would focus on the indignity suffered by the poor and how they would work hard for little recompense.  The depiction of this inequality of course implied a criticism of the capitalist society and capitalism itself.  The Social Realist painters of America did not want their works to focus on the beauty of their country as portrayed by the likes of the Hudson River School painters.  For them, to get their message across to the public, their works needed to depict the industrial suburbs with its grime and unpleasantness or the run-down farming communities with their broken-down buildings.  Occasionally these artists would depict the rich in their paintings but they were only included for satirical reasons.

Ben Shahn was born in Kovno, Lithuania in 1898 and was the eldest of five children of an Orthodox Jewish family.  His father, Joshua, was a woodcarver and cabinet maker.  In 1902, probably because of his revolutionary activities, his father was exiled to Siberia.  His mother, Gittel Lieberman, and her children moved to Vilkomir, which is now the Lithuanian town of Ukmerge.  Four years later, in 1906, Shahn’s mother and three of her offsprings emigrated to America and settled in Brooklyn with Joshua who had already fled there from Siberia.  Ben Shahn original artistic training was as a lithographer and then as a graphic artist.

At the age of twenty-one Shahn went to New York University and studied biology.  Two years later he transferred to City College of New York to study art and then moved on to the New York National Academy of Design which is now known as The National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts.

In 1924 Shahn married Tillie Goldstein and the two set off on a long journey of discovery taking in North Africa and the traditional artist pilgrimage of the capital cities of Europe taking in the works of the great European modern artists of the time such as Matisse, Picasso and Klee.  He had not been won over by their art or the European Modernist art scene and soon felt less influenced by their work and preferred to follow the style of the Realists painters especially those who showed a concern for the plight of the downtrodden.  Shahn was inspired by the likes of the photographer Walker Evans, the Mexican communist painter Diego Rivera and the French Realist painters.   It was with Rivera that Shahn worked on the public mural at the Rockefeller Centre, which was to cause such controversy and had to be hidden from public view and eventually destroyed.

As a political activist Shahn became interested in newspaper photography.  Photography was to act as his source material for some of his paintings and satires. During the 1930’s he was engaged in street photography himself, recording the lives of the working-class and immigrant populations and the hardship of the unemployed.   Over the years Shahn, with his trusted 35mm Leica camera, built up a large collection of photographs which poignantly recorded the horror of unemployment and poverty during the Depression years.

My Daily Art Display featured painting is simply entitled Unemployment and was completed by Shahn in 1934.  Shahn exhibited many paintings and photographs which highlighted the plight of the unemployed and homeless especially during the time of the Great Depression.  Before us stand five men, all purported to be out of work.  They look down on their luck.  Their black eyes stare out at us.  They stand upright trying to muster a certain amount of dignity despite the hopelessness of their situation.  In some of their faces we see a look of desperation and fear of what their future may hold.  The man in the right foreground has his arms folded across his chest.  His look is more defiant almost questioning the viewer about what they intend to do about his plight.  One man has a makeshift patch on his eye which makes him look even more vulnerable.  I suppose Shahn and other Realist painters believed that through the moving nature of the subjects of their works it would help remind everybody of the horrors of life we could face and counsel us to avoid similar pitfalls in the future.  Sadly, as in the case of war with its tragedies and horrors, we rarely learn by our mistakes and seem to always repeat our mistakes.  There seems to be little we can do but shake our heads sympathetically as we view these Social Realist paintings and can only hope that we ourselves are never touched by similar tragedies.

McSorley’s Bar by John Sloan

McSorley's Bar by John Sloan (1912)

I have looked at many paintings which have featured inns and taverns but they have been mainly been depictions of rural scenes with peasants in the Netherlands and Flanders and were painted by the Dutch and Flemish painters centuries ago.  Today, for a change, I am looking at a genre painting of a tavern scene but this is not really a tavern, more what we British would call a pub or Americans would term a bar or a saloon.  The title of the painting is McSorley’s Bar and was painted by the American artist John French Sloan.  Sloan was originally a member of a group of artists who had the strange collective name of The Eight and later he became a leading figure in the Ashcan School of realist artists.  I have featured works by these artists in earlier blogs and if you enter either Ashcan School or Robert Henri or George Bellows into the “Search” function at the right of this blog it will give you a little bit of history about these artist groups.

John French Sloan was born in New York in 1871.  His father James had had an interest in art, but as only as a hobby but he did encourage his children to draw and paint during their early years.  Sloan’s father struggled to find gainful employment moving from one job to another without ever making a fortune.  He married, Henrietta, a girl who had come from a much more financially prosperous family and who was a teacher.  James Sloan suffered a mental breakdown when John was seventeen years of age and consequently was unable to work and the burden of supporting the family fell on to the shoulders of the seventeen year old John.  For this reason, John Sloan had to leave school and find a job in order to bring in some money for the family.

Sloan was employed in a local bookstore as an assistant cashier.  The job was not very taxing and the young man had time to read the books that were on sale at the emporium and also spend time studying the artistic prints that it also held.  It was during this time that Sloan started to make pen and ink copies of some of the prints and the store owner liked them so much that he allowed Sloan to put them up for sale in the store.  Two years later in 1890 Sloan moved on to work in a stationery store where he used to design calendars and greeting cards.  Sloan had now found the joy of art and enrolled in an evening art class.  Buoyed by his artistic successes he left the stationers and set himself up as a commercial artist but his well-intentioned venture failed and he took a job as an illustrator at the local newspaper offices of The Philadelphia Enquirer, later he would work for the rival newspaper, The Philadelphia Press.    He continued his artistic tuition in the evenings by enrolling at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.  It was here he met and became friends with fellow artists such as William Glackens and Robert Henri who became Sloan’s mentor, sending him reproductions of works by the French Impressionists and the leading European Renaissance painters, for him to copy.

When Sloan was twenty-seven he was introduced to a young woman with a somewhat chequered history, Anna Maria Wall, known affectionately as Dolly.  Sloan, who was very naive, very self-conscious and lacked the social graces which would gain him female companionship, met Anna at a brothel.  Although she worked in a department store during the day, she supplemented her meagre income by working in a brothel at night.  She needed the extra money to feed her other vice;  she was also an alcoholic but despite all this he fell in love with her and they started, what one can imagine, was a “challenging” relationship.

Their relationship did prove difficult as Anna not only suffered the effects of excessive and prolonged alcohol intake, she suffered from alcohol-related mental problems  and insecurity often believing Sloan was about to leave her.  In 1906 Sloan sought medical advice and was advised that he needed to constantly support Anna and show how much he needed her.  Between them they devised a plan by which Sloan would keep a dairy and in it he would write down each day how much he loved Anna and wanted to be with her and then leave the diary somewhere where she was bound to find it and surreptitiously read his journal entries and by doing so put her mind at rest.  He wrote daily entries for seven years until 1913.   Despite these problems, Sloan’s artistic work continued well and he was producing numerous oil paintings.  In 1904 he moved to New York and went to live in Greenwich Village and although relying on money he received from his freelance work for The Philadelphia Press newspaper, he supplemented that with money he earned for his book and magazine illustrations.   It was whilst living in New York, in 1912, that he painted today’s featured work McSorley’s Bar.  He exhibited it at the 1913 Armory Show, an exhibition of modern art which had been organised by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors.  This turned out to be a landmark exhibition which opened the eyes of the New Yorkers to this new modern art and the likes of cubism, who up till then had been accustomed to realistic art.   Sloan’s painting never sold and in fact remained unsold until 1932 when the Detroit Institute of Arts purchased it.  This was the first painting by Sloan to be part of a museum collection and was probably one of his best.

This painting was very typical of works by John Sloan in which he liked to depict the energy and life during the early years of the twentieth century of New York City and its inhabitants.  Sloan was a socialist and a member of the Socialist Party and had great empathy with the less well-off and their demanding and troubled existences.  His paintings would show the city’s people in different places and situations on the city streets and occasionally, like today’s painting, he would depict people in interior settings, such as cafés or bars as they discussed among themselves their everyday existence.

The painting today shows the interior of McSorley’s Bar with its clientele standing at the bar.  John Mc Sorley opened his Manhatten establishment on East Seventh Street in 1854 and during its existence in the nineteenth century, was an all-male bar.  From around 1912 it became a regular haunt of John Sloan and his Ashcan School artists.  The bar Sloan depicted was somewhat rough and inhospitable. It was always frequented by a great mix of people of various social classes and even today carpenters and mechanics rub shoulders with Wall Street brokers and local politicians.  John Sloan completed five paintings of the interior of the bar between 1912 and 1930 and these certainly increased the popularity of the establishment.   Today, McSorley’s bar draws visitors from around the world.    Its fame as New York’s oldest bar assures its survival and a 1970 court order guarantees that women are as welcome as men!   It’s a museum-like place. One can go there to drink a pint of ale and survey relics of a past era.

In 1943, Sloan’s  wife, Dolly, died of coronary heart disease. The next year, Sloan married Helen Farr, who is responsible for most of the preservation of his works. Part of this was the diary he wrote between 1907 and 1913 for his first wife, Dolly, to read and which were lovingly collated and published in 1965.  They gave a marvellous insight into Sloan’s life and his thoughts during those turbulent times.

On September 7, 1951 John Sloan died at the age of 80, of cancer in Hanover, New Hampshire.  John French Sloan was a leading figure in the Ashcan School of realist painters and was somebody who embraced the principles of socialism and allowed his artistic genius to be used to benefit those fervently upheld values.  His paintings sadly rarely sold during his lifetime and teaching at the Art Students’ League, of which he became its director in 1931, was his principal income.

To learn more about McSorley’s Bar why not go to their website:


Automat by Edward Hopper

Automat by Edward Hopper (1927)

“All the lonely people, where do they all belong? “

I am sure the words from the Beatles song Eleanor Rigby are known by most people.  Loneliness can be a terrible burden to have to bear and its often associated with the impersonality of a large city, which although teeming with people, they seem to remain as strangers, whereas within small village communities there is a sense of camaraderie and friendliness which ensures that with a minimum of effort your loneliness can be banished. 

 My Daily Art Display featured painting for today is entitled Automat by the American artist Edward Hopper, which he completed in 1927.  His theme of loneliness and the loneliness of city life was a constant theme in a number of his paintings.  Look back to My Daily Art Display of January 23rd when I featured his famous work entitled Nighthawks. 

In today’s painting we see a woman, with her cloche hat pulled low down over her forehead, staring into her coffee cup as she sits by herself, in what Hopper terms as an Automat.  I have to admit I had never heard of this term before  but I believe they were what we would now call fast food outlets,  which served simple food or drinks,  and which were served by coin-operated and bill-operated vending machines but I guess the machines have been removed an there is waitress service nowadays.   There is a starkness about the setting, almost but not quite minimalist.  Like the scene in Nighthawks there are just windows but no doors on view, giving a slight sense of entrapment.  Her look of preoccupation would suggest she may be, for some reason unknown to us, mentally entrapped.

The woman we see before us is pensive, her eyes are downcast and to my mind she seems a little sad.  She is well dressed with her warm winter coat with its fur collar and cuffs.  She wears makeup so maybe she is on her way for an evening out or looking how dark it is outside, maybe she is on her way back home.  Of course we are not really sure whether she is on her own or whether the empty chair at her table is for somebody else.  Maybe she is awaiting her companion or is her despondency due to the companion’s non-arrival.

Another strange thing about the woman is that she has only one glove on.  Could it be that this café is not only a lonely place but also a cold one and the one glove is all she wanted to remove so that she could hold the cup and yet still retain some warmth?  The dark window takes up a lot of space in the painting and its darkness adds to the atmosphere of the painting.  It is pitch-black outside and, along with the way the woman is dressed, gives us the feeling that this scene takes place on a cold autumn or winter night.  There is no sign of life outside, no people, no lights from other buildings and no headlights from cars.  This lack of outside lights works well and allows just the penetration of the blackness by the reflection of the café lights to be more effective and in so doing adds to the feeling of isolation. Does Hopper want to liken the woman’s mood and her life to this view of the window – dark with little going on in it?  She is in the middle of a deserted town which adds to the sense of her isolation and solitude.  Note how Hopper has painted the woman’s legs.  The brightness of his colouring of them draws our eyes to them even though they are under the table.  It adds a little bit of overt sensuality to the painting and makes us wonder how such a woman could feel sad and lonely.  We are now concerned about her vulnerability.  Is her pensiveness also due to her feeling vulnerable as she sits alone in this café?

Time Magazine, August 1995

Hopper’s painting and ones of a similar theme are linked with the perception of urban alienation, which by definition is the state of being withdrawn or isolated from the urban world, as through indifference or disaffection.  It is interesting to note that in August 1995 Time magazine used this painting on its front cover with its lead article dedicated to stress, anxiety and depression.

Loneliness is often the central subject matter in Hopper’s art. The people he depicts look as though they are far from the comfort and reassurance of home. We see clues as to their isolation in the way they stand reading a letter beside a hotel bed or drinking in a bar. They stare out of the window of a moving train or read a book in a hotel lobby. Their faces often have the look of vulnerability and introspection. They look like they may have just been jilted or have just broken up with someone. They often seem to be mentally searching for something or someone and have been cast adrift in transient settings. His paintings are often set at night, as this adds to the mood and evocatively all we see through the window is darkness.

Yet despite this bleakness we witness in Hopper’s paintings, they are not themselves bleak to look at – perhaps because they allow us, the viewer, to witness some of the artist’s grief and disappointments, and from that we feel less personally persecuted and beset by them.  It is as if we suddenly realise we are not the only person to feel sad or depressed, for isn’t it true that sometimes a sad book consoles us more when we feel sad.  Maybe we just need to realise we are not alone in our sufferings. 

In some ways Hopper has challenged us to make up our own mind about the story behind the painting.  There is no action going on to give us any clues.  Maybe the story we come up with will depend on our own state of mind.  If we are happy, we may well believe that the woman is thinking about the coming to the café of her beloved.  If we ourselves are feeling lonely and slightly depressed then maybe we empathize with the woman and share her isolation and vulnerability.  So what is to be?  What is your take on the scene in the painting?  Maybe it is at times like this, when we look at the painting and we perceive the loneliness and unhappiness of the woman that we should take time to be grateful for what we have.  Maybe we should not always desire something else.  Maybe we should want what we have.