Every time an artist receives a rejection slip from a major juried competition he or she had their heart set upon "making," there usually wells up from within feelings not only of dejection and dismay, but very often the urge to rebel as well. Itís a universal feeling and probably a healthy venting of pent up anger too. Individually, we feel helpless before the megalithic "art establishment" but in sharing these feelings with other artists, sometimes we can "make a difference." Amongst rebellious artists at least, the revolt of the French Impressionists against the Academy des Beaux-arts during the turbulent years of the 1870s rises to historic proportions just short of that given world wars or great depressions in the general history books. But we're tempted to think of this as some kind of albeit monumental, but nonetheless isolated incident. Strangely enough however, it wasn't. Similar "wars" have taken place in Italy, Germany, England, and in this country. France was just the first of many.
In this country, it happened in 1908. The Rebels were nicknamed by the press "The Eight," and the art establishment, as in France thirty years before, was our own, National Academy of Design. The Edouard Manet of the group urging them on was Philadelphia artist and teacher, Robert Henri, and the Claude Monet leading the rebellion was John Sloan. Outraged that his paintings of New York street scenes, and those of his friends, were rejected outright by the Academy for their yearly exhibition as being too "raw," depicting subjects unworthy of an artist's attention, Sloan led "The Eight" to MacBeth's Gallery where they staged their own version of the infamous "Salon des Refuse" to perfectly coincide with the Academy Exhibition. Already horrified by the group's macho painting style and gritty, gloomy subject matter, the Academy was further angered by this deliberate affront to their previously sacrosanct dominance of the New York art world. The war was on.
Sloan was a hard-bitten Philadelphia newspaper illustrator, well fitted for the artistic trench warfare employed by what later came to be called the Ashcan School. Born in 1871, he was a mixed breed, part reporter, part artist, and no stranger to the streets of Philadelphia. His illustrations having been replaced by photochemical reproduction at the Philadelphia Press, Sloan packed up his newlywed wife and followed Henri to New York in 1903 where he struggled in poverty to paint and still earn a living by working at various commercial art jobs. He brought with him to New York and to his painting a reporter's appreciation of the hard facts unhampered by the "rules" of academic standards. His 1907 The Wake of the Ferry II and his 1912 McSorley's Bar are typical of the social (as opposed to photographic) realism he brought to his subjects. "The Eight" show was both the opening shot and the turning point of the war. Soon after, Sloan began to have work accepted in shows at the Pennsylvania Academy, the Chicago Art institute, and the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh. Commissions began to come in to providing etchings to illustrate books. Still it was 1913 before he sold his first painting, and 1924 before he again found a steady job, this time as an instructor at the famed Art Student's League. And it several years after that before his work came to be grudgingly accepted by the National Academy. He died in 1951 at the age of eighty, no longer a rebel, but still a battle-scarred veteran of the war of "The Eight."