Life and humanity on the “wonderful roofs” of John Sloan’s New York

If you’re familiar with John Sloan’s Lower Manhattan paintings and illustrations from the first half of the 20th century, then you’ve probably noticed a running theme among them: tenement rooftops.

“Rain Rooftops West Fourth Street,” 1913

Like other Ashcan and social realist artists of his era, Sloan was captivated by what he saw on these roofs—the people he surreptitiously watched; their mundane activities; their delight, despair, and sensuality; and the exquisite vantage points roofs offered of a city on the rise.

“Sunday Paper on the Roof,” 1918

“These wonderful roofs of New York City bring me all humanity,” Sloan said in 1919, about 15 years after he and his wife left his native Philadelphia and relocated first to Chelsea and then to Greenwich Village, according to the Hyde Collection, where an exhibit of Sloan’s roof paintings ran in 2019. “It is all the world.”

“Roof Chats,” 1944-1950

“Work, play, love, sorrow, vanity, the schoolgirl, the old mother, the thief, the truant, the harlot,” Sloan stated, per an article in The Magazine Antiques. “I see them all down there without disguise.”

“Pigeons,” 1910

His rooftop paintings and illustrations often depicted the city during summer, when New Yorkers went to their roofs to escape the stifling heat in tenement houses—socializing, taking pleasure in romance and love, and on the hottest days dragging up mattresses to sleep.

“I have always liked to watch the people in the summer, especially the way they live on the roofs,” the artist said, according to Reynolda House. “Coming to New York and finding a place to live where I could observe the backyards and rooftops behind our attic studio—it was a new and exciting experience.”

“Red Kimono on the Roof,” 1912

Rooftops were something of a stage for Sloan. From his seat in his Greenwich Village studio on the 11th floor of a building at Sixth Avenue and West Fourth Street, Sloan could watch the theater of the city: a woman hanging her laundry, another reading the Sunday paper, a man training pigeons on top of a tenement and a rapt boy watching, dreaming.

Sloan described his 1912 painting, “Sunday, Women Drying Their Hair,” as “another of the human comedies which were regularly staged for my enjoyment by the humble roof-top players of Cornelia Street,” states the caption to this painting at the Addison Gallery of American Art.

“Sunday, Women Drying Their Hair,” 1912

Of course, roofs also meant freedom. In the crowded, crumbling pockets of Lower Manhattan filled with the poor and working class New Yorkers who captured Sloan’s imagination, roofs conveyed a sense of “escape from the suffocating confines of New York tenement living,” wrote the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

“Sunbathers on the Roof,” 1941

In the early 20th century, many progressive social reformers preferred to see these roof-dwelling New Yorkers in newly created parks and beaches, which were safer and less private.

But “Sloan embraced what he called ‘the roof life of the Metropolis’—as he did its street life—as a means to capture the human and aesthetic qualities of the urban everyday, a defining commitment of the Ashcan School,” wrote Nick Yablon in American Art in 2011.

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7 Responses to “Life and humanity on the “wonderful roofs” of John Sloan’s New York”

  1. countrypaul Says:

    “Hot town, summer in the city….Running up the stairs, gonna meet you on the rooftop” – John Sebastian. Likely not an exclusive New York phenomenon, but certainly a signature one.

  2. Joe Ruiz Says:

    In the “Pigeons” painting, that looks like the old Penn Station in the distance.

  3. Rain Rooftops West Fourth Street, John Sloan – This isnt happiness Says:

    […] Rain Rooftops West Fourth Street, John Sloan […]

  4. Bill Wolfe Says:

    And then there’s the Drifters’ “Up on the Roof,” where the city roof is “a paradise that’s trouble-proof.” Just about every line of Gerry Goffin’s lyric could serve as a caption to a Sloan rooftop painting.

  5. Tom B Says:

    What is a “progressive social reformer” from the early 20th century? Were they the anti-fun police?
    From our high room on the east side of the Waldorf Astoria, you could see nude people on a very nice roof top.

  6. Emily Berleth Says:

    On Sun, Nov 28, 2021 at 11:08 PM Ephemeral New York wrote:

    > ephemeralnewyork posted: ” If you’re familiar with John Sloan’s Lower > Manhattan paintings and illustrations from the first half of the 20th > century, then you’ve probably noticed a running theme among them: tenement > rooftops. “Rain Rooftops West Fourth Street,” 1913 Like othe” >

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