John Sloan (1871–1951), Bonfire Posted on July 22nd, 2014 by

BonfireJohn Sloan (1871–1951)
Bonfire, 1920
Etching on paper, 5 ¼ x 7 ½ inches
Purchased with funds donated by Dawn and Edward Michael

Following the advice of his close friend Robert Henri (1865–1929), Sloan used New York City as a principal subject, both in painting and in etching. He taught himself how to etch using Philip G. Hamerton’s 1881 manual The Etcher’s Handbook as a guide. He became very adept in the medium, and is considered among the most important of all American printmakers. He created over 300 different prints, including portraits of artist friends such as Henri and numerous works exploring the sociology of New York City. This image reflects the tradition of bonfires in Greenwich Village that were lit especially on election night, with neighborhood boys gathering up crates and other combustibles for fuel. Some locations were so frequently used for fires that it was claimed the pavement stones of the street were more like asphalt. In Sloan’s image, boys leap over the fire while others dangerously swing flaming buckets on ropes which their comrades dodge. Sloan wrote about this image, “This fire frolic on a vacant lot has resulted in a plate with fine qualities of light and movement.” Sloan may have been recalling his own experience a few years earlier with a bonfire in Greenwich Village—on January 23, 1917, he and a group of five friends that included fellow artist Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) snuck to the top of the Washington Square Arch and lit a bonfire and read a proclamation from the group of “Arch Conspirators” declaring the “Free and Independent Republic of Washington Square.” In the background of this 1920 image is seen a billboard for a performance at Greenwich Village Theatre, located at Sheridan Square, of the play Samson and Delilah, a new work by Danish playwright Sven Lange (1868–1930) featuring Yiddish actor Jacob Bel-Ami, which opened November 17. The image may refer specifically to Election Night, which in 1920 was November 2 (and which resulted in the election of Warren G. Harding). Sloan also painted an image of children stoking a bonfire, a 1918 oil now in the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey.

Text from the catalogue for the exhibition The Eight, The Ashcan School, and The American Scene in the Hillstrom Collection, presented in the Hillstrom Museum of Art February 25 through April 21, 2013.


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