“The light cast down the years by the Armory Show has tended to blur what went before. What went before is vividly revealed in “John Sloan’s New York Scene.” For the task of recorder, Sloan was ideally situated. He was a leader in the exhibition of “The Eight,” which, five years before the Armory Show, pointed the new directions in American painting which seemed at that moment the most promising. . . Every day he received visits and visited, wandered the streets, went to parties and the theater. One often wonders when he found time to paint. . . . The Eight were in revolt against a cult of “picturesque” which found only the more refined aspects of life worth painting . . . Sloan’s city painting expressed not social consciousness, but the picturesque where conventional artists denied that it existed” [James Thomas Flexner, “Slums Were as One Saw Them,” in The New York Times, Nov. 21, 1965, p. 139].
Gray and Brass was illustrated to accompany this review, a perfect evocation of Sloan’s personal take on the vibrant “Ash Can” aesthetic: “Happiness rather than misery is the whole of life. Fifth Avenue faces are unhappy in comparison” [Ibid.]. Flexner called Sloan’s “best pictures . . . the happy works of a grown-up child” with approbation: Sloan’s treatment of the increasingly grimy urban life was not a celebration of poverty or a critique of modernity, but a “stupendous naiveté” that allowed him to embrace the life, hale and hearty, everywhere around him. This was a lesson taken full-cloth from the keystone of the Ashcan School: “[Sloan] felt for his teacher, Robert Henri, a hero-worship that was truly boyish” [Ibid.].
In 1925, Sloan gave his clearest statement to the meaning of the work’s title in an extensive meditation on the many types of gray in American cities. He was a connoisseur of gray – not as a metaphor for the bleak or indistinct, but seeing within gray an entire rainbow of color, all ripe for the exploitation in the service of expressing urban beauty. “Every city has its own colors,” he began. “The city built on a cold, northern coast is likely to be gray, any one of a half-dozen shades of grayness, expressing in some degree the stern cast of its spirits” [John Sloan, “Souls of Our Cities Seen in Colors,” in The New York Times, Feb. 22, 1965, pp. 104, 123]. He turned over the “Yellow Ochre of Omaha” and the “velvet purple and brown” of Pittsburgh, but ultimately found gray in almost every city in the nation. Before considering his adoptive home of New York, however, he sketched the color scheme of a city for which he held a surprising affection:
“The true colors of Los Angeles are gray and brass. Gray runs through as many shades as the whole gamut of colors. The uninitiated man may think of gray as just plain gray, and likely to mean sadness or a wintry scene in his own private color scheme. But the grays that enter into the artistic definition are varied indeed. Thus Los Angeles is a gray city, with the brass thrown in. This latter expresses several things. It is a new city, in large measure. Also it is the home of the moving picture [Ibid.].”
This last remark, equating brass with novelty and motion, is left unexplored in Sloan’s chromatic manifesto, but the present work suggests a further articulation of the simile. The work was painted in New York, not Los Angeles, but the titular brass is present both literally in the car’s metalwork and metaphorically in the painting’s subject. Like the new city of the motion picture, the automobile was, in 1908, the brassiest thing going: shiny, new, and moving.
Nancy Mowll Mathews, in her book on American painting and the motion picture, highlighted the intersection of film, the automobile, and modernity, highlighting present work:
“Sloan constructed a street-side view of a grand touring car moving through the city in his painting Gray and Brass (1907), juxtaposing the bright smooth passage of the automobile with the darker area of men seated on park benches beside the roadway. While the comparison of machine speed and sedentary humanity might seem obvious today, automobiles traveled through New York City at a rate of ten miles per hour in the early days of the twentieth century. In 1905, Edison cameraman Edwin Porter (1870-1941) produced a move entitled The Life of An American Policeman,, in which policemen riding bicycles on Riverside Drive in Manhattan overtake a Pierce-Arrow touring car, similar to the one in Sloan’s painting. Gray and Brass is also a comparison of classes and types: the robust colorful riche in their touring car versus the drably clothed and indistinctly rendered men on the park benches” [Nancy Mowll Mathews, Moving Pictures (2005), no. 234].
As to New York, Sloan saw it as the ultimate gray city, with no shortage of brass of its own:
“But who shall express New York in any one combination of colors. It is a distinctly gray city, massively gray, sometimes abstruse, elusive, at other moments a clear gray, understandable, friendly. . . New York is the cosmopolitan palette in which all colors mingle and then appear sharply by turns. But the dominant note at last is gray, what might be called New York gray . . . At first it hurts the eyes, but after a while becomes a little more understandable as a part of New York life, the suggestion of a circus train running through the big city” [Ibid.].
He considered “Broadway’s twinkling signs,” “the blue of uniforms,” and the “yellow of our renovated railways that run on stilts,” concluding:
“New York in a way is the grayest of our cities, a massive creation heaped upon one small island – ambiguous, evasive, ever changing and always fascinating, like a woman’s smile” [Ibid.].
In his memoirs, The Gist of Art, Sloan gave another, more literal meaning for the title of the work, infusing his explanation with a wistfulness for the bygone era of the early automobile:
“I well remember how earnest was my intention to bring out the pomp and circumstance that marked the wealthy group in the motor car. The car, gray trimmed with much brass, gave me my title for the picture. This automobile and the veils and dusters are gone today, but the gray lives of the sidewalk are little changed” [John Sloan, The Gist of Art (1939), p. 215, illus.].
Heather Campbell Coyle identified the setting more finely, writing:
“Sloan moves to the edge of the park in Gray and Brass, his picture of a high-class touring car zipping past Madison Square on Fifth Avenue . . . In Sloan’s New York, the parks, like the streets, were places where diverse individuals encountered one another every day. The city allowed male and female, old and young, affluent and impoverished, to observe and comment on each other, a pleasure in which Sloan indulged in his letters, his diaries, and his art . . . In the early twentieth century, Madison Square Park, situated on Fifth Avenue, was a place where one might encounter the idle rich, the idle poor, and an artist of modest means out to fetch the newspaper on a pleasant Sunday in September” [Heather Campbell Coyle, John Sloan’s New York (2008), p. 47].
Sloan’s fascination with the automobile was shared by the modernists that exploded from the 1913 Armory Show, but his interest in the horseless carriage centered on the social implications of driving rather than modernity in itself. John Storrs composed a paean to the automobile and the skyscraper in Auto Tower in 1922, and a generation of Precisionists and Leger-inspired cubists expressed a jubilant hope for the age of the automobile in the 1920s and 30s. Sloan admired industry and novelty, but the story of the human occupants inspired him, while Storrs and co. omitted these entirely:
“The leaves in Madison Square are commencing to show the touch of fall, very beautiful rich color and the brass trimmings of the automobiles dashing by on Fifth Avenue suggest a picture to me. The brass of the life of those riding” [Quoted in Bruce St. John, ed., John Sloan’s New York Scene from the Diaries, Notes and Correspondence, 1906-1913 (1965), 154-155].
There is gaiety aboard, but also a touch of satire in the “pomp and circumstance” of going for a drive. Sloan often insisted that his work not be interpreted for social “message,” but there is an ambivalent glee both in the novelty of the shiny bit of technology, and the absurdity with which its practitioners embrace it. Accordingly, Gray and Brass is better considered one of the earliest views of the automobile in an American Scene picture, accompanied by Grant Wood’s Death on the Ridge Road (1935), Edward Hopper’s Gas (1940), or even N. C. Wyeth’s illustration for Fisk Cord Tires (1919). The closest thing to a peer in the marvel and menace of the early automobile is perhaps in another medium altogether: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925).
The painter struggled in these early years of the twentieth century, but Sloan found his fortune turning around the year Gray and Brass was painted, in 1907. The picture itself had a fascinating life after the 1908 show of the Eight. It was shown often and passed through two important private collections, each time garnering effusive and building praise.
In 1934, Edward Allen Jewell countenanced Sloan’s “pursuing the novel departure” from his original style with ambivalence, holding up the present work as an exemplar case of his greatest achievements:
“The artist’s former style is well exemplified by paintings such as . . . Gray and Brass, which apparently belongs to approximately the period in which was produced “Dust Storm, Fifth Avenue, 1906.” Although the palette in those days was much more subdued than it is now, the early pictures seem to have retained their original freshness [Edward Allen Jewell, “Art of John Sloan on Exhibition Here,” in The New York Times, Jan. 4, 1934, p. 17].
Lincoln Isham was the great-grandson of Abraham Lincoln. The son of Charles and Mary Lincoln Isham was born in New York, the grandson of Robert Todd Lincoln, the president’s son. Isham died in 1971, whereupon the work passed to his estate.