Editor's note: The following essay was published in connection with the exhibition Helen Farr Sloan, 1911-2005, on exhibit at the Delaware Art Museum from September 26, 2015 through January 10, 2016. The essay was published October 7, 2015 in Resource Library with permission of the Delaware Art Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the source material, or accompnying images and text, please contact the Delaware Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:
Helen Farr Sloan, 1911-2005
by Heather Campbell Coyle
In 1998, Helen Farr Sloan received the Governor's Award for the Arts in honor of her extraordinary philanthropy in the State of Delaware. An ardent supporter of American art museums, libraries, and individual scholars, she had dedicated more than half her life to stewarding the legacy of her husband, the American realist painter John Sloan (1871-1951), placing his pictures in public collections across the nation. The Delaware Art Museum was the largest recipient of her generosity, becoming home to the John Sloan archives and to thousands of works of art. Helen Farr Sloan was also an ambitious painter, a talented printmaker, and an art instructor. This fall marks the tenth anniversary of Farr Sloan's death, and the Museum is celebrating her generosity with an exhibition dedicated to her art.
Born in New York City on February 24, 1911, she was the daughter of Charles Farr, a surgeon at New York Hospital and Helen Woodhull, who had studied art before her marriage to Dr. Farr. Wearing leg braces for two years as a child, Farr Sloan enjoyed drawing, a hobby encouraged by her parents and her uncle Hollon Farr, a professor of German at Yale University. Farr Sloan attended the Brearley School for Girls and the King-Coit Children's Theatrical School, where her classmates included the children of prominent artists: Jean Bellows (daughter of George and Emma Bellows), Pauline Manship (daughter of sculptor Paul Manship), and Mary Perrine (daughter of painter Van Dearing Perrine). At King-Coit she took a special interest in designing sets and programs, and she performed on stage. At age 16, she traveled to England with friends and stayed with Guy Wiggins, a painter her mother knew from art school. Seeing talent in her watercolors, Wiggins encouraged Farr Sloan to leave school and study art, and her parents eventually consented.
Farr Sloan enrolled at the Art Students League to study with Boardman Robinson, whose wife was a patient of her father, and she also landed in the class run by realist painter John Sloan. She took copious notes during the classes she attended with Sloan and Robinson, often scrawling directly on her sketchbook pages. Sloan, who usually discouraged his students from note-taking, approved only because her transcriptions were so meticulous. In Farr Sloan's second year of study with Sloan, he told her she was ready to work on her own, so she left his class and began developing paintings and drawings from sketches she made in city parks and subways. She remained active at the League, studying etching with Harry Wickey and lithography with Charles Locke, and she was elected to the Board.
By her early twenties, Farr Sloan was producing ambitious paintings and prints of New York City life. The 1930s were the most productive decade of her artistic career, and her work reflected the social realism prevalent at the time. Like other students of John Sloan -- Reginald Marsh, Peggy Bacon, Don Freeman -- she absorbed her instructor's interest in everyday life. Farr Sloan painted 59th Street on a blustery night, bustling with cars and pedestrians, and a summer stage in Washington Square Park. She captured a crowded opening night at the Whitney Museum of American Art with William Glackens' painting, Family Group, 1910, prominently displayed on the rear wall. Her etchings and lithographs depict shoe shoppers, subway riders, and drinkers in the speakeasy.
Reflecting her enthusiastic immersion in life drawing and artistic anatomy at the League, Farr Sloan's sketchbooks are filled with figure studies, and her mature paintings and prints are full of expressive and solidly drawn figures. Dancers are a recurring theme in Farr Sloan's graphic art. Starting around 1930, she produced a series of etchings and lithographs of the dance-mime Angna Enters (1897-1989). Enters was a dancer, mime, writer, and visual artist. After moving to New York in 1919, Enters took classes at the Art Students League and studied dance. In 1924 she launched her first solo dance program, "The Theatre of Angna Enters" at the Greenwich Village Theater. Her performances featured dozens of characters, each with a distinct attitude and wardrobe that the dancer designed and produced herself. Farr Sloan's prints capture the dramatic costumes and the distinctive poses Enters employed to convey the stories of her protagonists.
As a young artist, Farr Sloan returned to the King-Coit School to help with set design, and she taught art at the Nightingale-Bamford School for Girls. She also collaborated with John Sloan to transform her class notes into a book of his teachings, The Gist of Art, published in 1939. In the 1930s with the Sloans and other artist-friends, she spent time in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a locale that was becoming a favorite with New York artists. There she was captivated by the Native American dances. She chronicled these in etchings and lithographs that she produced from memory, as sketching was not permitted during the performances.
After the death of John Sloan's first wife, Helen and John were married and painted side by side in New York and Santa Fe. And after Sloan's death in 1951, Farr Sloan dedicated herself to nurturing his legacy, distributing, through gift and sale, the paintings and etchings from his estate. She became a key resource for scholars and curators looking for information and art for exhibitions. One such curator, Bruce St. John, worked at the Delaware Art Museum, and his interest in Sloan and early 20th-century art attracted the attention of Farr Sloan. Starting in 1963, she donated more than 2,600 works by Sloan, his personal papers, and more than 1,800 works by other artists to the Delaware Art Museum.
Eventually Farr Sloan moved from New York to Wilmington, where she assisted scholars interested in Sloan and his circle and helped to organize and annotate Sloan's papers. She participated in the local art scene, taking ceramic classes at the Delaware Museum and keeping a studio at the Howard Pyle Studios on Franklin Street. In 1992 the Studio Group, which maintains these studios, hosted the first retrospective exhibition of Helen Farr Sloan's work. Reflecting her years of dedication to John Sloan's memory, the show primarily featured paintings and prints produced between the 1930s and the 1950s, and only one work dated after 1962 -- a painting of the lunch counter at the Wilmington train station that demonstrated her continued dedication to painting the urban scene around her. Helen Farr Sloan continued to meet with scholars and visit the Museum regularly even after she reached 90 years of age. As she wrote on the occasion of her solo show in 1992, "friends at the art museum and the Studio Group have become like a second family."
(above: Hollon Woodhull Farr, Helen Farr Sloan Painting, c.1947, Gelatin silver print. John Sloan Manuscript Collection, Helen Farr Sloan Library and Archives, Delaware Art Museum)
Selected images, captions and interpretative text for objects in the exhibition
For image set one, please click here
For image set two please click here
For image set three please click here
About the author
Heather Campbell Coyle is Curator of American Art at the Delaware Art Museum. Dr. Coyle curates, lectures, and publishes on historical American painting, photography, and illustration. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Delaware.
About the exhibition
Helen Farr Sloan, 1911-2005 is on exhibit at the Delaware Art Museum from September 26, 2015 through January 10, 2016.
This exhibition was organized by the Delaware Art Museum.
Helen Farr Sloan, 1911-2005 is made possible by the Johannes R. and
Betty P. Krahmer American Art Exhibition Fund and the Hallie Tybout Exhibition
Fund. Additional support is provided by grants from the Delaware Division
of the Arts, a state agency dedicated to nurturing and supporting the arts
in Delaware, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts.
Resource Library editor's note
The above essay was published October 7, 2015 in Resource Library with permission of the Delaware Art Museum, granted October 7, 2015. Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Heather Campbell Coyle for her help concerning publishing the essay.
Resource Library readers may also enjoy:
and biographical information on artists cited in this article in America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
Read more information, articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Delaware Art Museum in Resource Library.
Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.
Copyright 2015 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.