Artist John Sloan considered the back room of McSorley’s a “sacristy.” So, it follows naturally that his five oil paintings of the venerable New York ale house are sacred icons of saloon culture. Between 1912 and 1948, Sloan didn’t merely depict life at McSorley’s, he conflated, celebrated and elevated populist ideals of art, community and the urban male.
Sloan may have depicted this in New York, but he had his awakening as an artist of the people back home in Philadelphia.
“Mr. Sloan’s school of art was life itself, his own and that of others, and finally the streets of two great cities—New York and Philadelphia,” wrote John Butler Yeats at the time. He transformed, everyday scenes “of robust lower-class Americans” with “spontaneous brushstrokes and unpolished depictions” finding inspiration in everyday life. “I saw people living in the streets and the rooftops of the city,’ wrote Sloan, ‘and I liked their fine animal spirit.”
“Rembrandt would have delighted in McSorley’s,” commented Hutchins Hapgood, “Velasquez would have found his account there, too, as our own John Sloan does.” This camaraderie, speculated art historian Mariea Caudill Dennison, “must have reminded him of his youthful experience as a member of [Robert] Henri’s group in Philadelphia.”
Sloan left Philadelphia for New York in April 1904 at the hardly tender age of 33. In Philadelphia he first learned to appreciate what friend and mentor Henri liked to call “that eternal business of life.” Sloan would also come to share Henri’s firmly-held belief that painting was a “man’s vocation,” that “an artist’s life [was] a virile occupation.” Art deepened “mysterious bonds of understanding and knowledge among men.”
A perfect match for the long established, male-dominated saloon culture. Henri’s group, mocked as the “Ashcan School,” created a new kind of art, one that refused to pander to what Sloan referred to as “the ignorant Listless Moneyed class.”
Now that we surmise Sloan’s early saloon experiences were in Philadelphia, we’re faced with the challenge: which of Philadelphia’s many saloons was it? Where was it located? And does it survive today?
Of course, Sloan’s Philadelphia saloon would have to offer something like McSorley’s, a place, as Dennison put it, where “a man could feel that he was the master of his own fate. …”a place where the world seems shut out, where there is no time, no turmoil. . .” A place with an owner and keeper who, according to Travis Hoke, was “considerably more than the mere proprietor” someone who is “one of the biggest figures in the neighborhood…a bartender, [a] counsellor in all the ways of life, [a] recipient of confidences, disburser of advice, arbiter of disputes, authority every subject.”
Hoping for clues, we turn to Sloan’s diaries and find mention of a return visit to his family home in December 1906. “Arrived in Phila. at 5 o’clock or thereabouts. The City (uptown) where I left the train looked so small I felt as tho’ I should be able to look in the second story windows of the houses — yet this is the neighborhood in which I grew up from 7 years old to 30 years about.”
What neighborhood was that?
The Sloans lived at 1921 North Camac Street, a rowhouse between 12th and 13th, Norris and Berks Streets. Back home in 1906 he savored some powerful memories, like making ice cream. “When I was a boy I had to twist the freezer handle 35 minutes down cellar. . . .with the jam shelf swinging overhead. I can bring the whole thing back: the old damp piece of red carpet, ingrain, that I used to cover over the finished job. The twist in the wooden stairs going down cellar. The heaving ruggedness of the earth floor, the joists overhead where, toward the front end opposite the round furnace, I had a trapeze. Out there the gas meter that I so longed to take apart. The hole of mystery under the marble steps [in] front.”
Interesting memories of this long-ago demolished house that stood north of where the belltower on Temple University’s main campus is now. But no mention of a visit to the local saloon.
Was there one? Of course there was.
On September 25, 1900, John McDermott sold to Patrick Rogan the building at the Northeast corner of 9th and Berks Streets. Sloan would have been 29 years old and only three blocks away when Patrick Rogan opened his etched-glass double doors and tapped his first kegs. We’re fortunate to have a photograph of it from 1903.
But, alas, Rogan’s saloon is long gone.
[Sources: Mariea Caudill Dennison, “McSorley’s: John Sloan’s Visual Commentary on Male Bonding, Prohibition, and the Working Class,” American Studies, Vol. 47, No. 2 (Summer 2006), pp. 23-38; Hutchins Hapgood, “McSorley’s Saloon,” Harpers Weekly, Vol 58, October 25, 1913; Travis Hoke, Corner Saloon. The American Mercury, March 1931, pp. 311-322; Grant Holcomb, “John Sloan and ‘McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon,’” The American Art Journal, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Spring, 1983), pp. 4-20; Bruce St. John,”John Sloan in Philadelphia, 1888-1904” The American Art Journal, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Autumn, 1971), pp. 80-87; John Sloan, The Gist of Art (New York, American Artists Group, Inc. 1939); John Sloan’s Diaries, 1906-1913, The Delaware Art Museum; John Butler Yeats, “The work of John Sloan,” Harper’s Weekly, November 22, 1913; Real Estate Transfers, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept 28, 1900]