Painting McSorley’s Bar

John Sloan’s work captured-and catapulted- the alehouse institution.

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John McSorley opened his alehouse on East Seventh Street in 1854 and for half a century served an all-male clientele of tanners, carpenters, bricklayers, butchers, teamsters and brewers. He died in 1910. A year or two later, when John Sloan and other Ashcan School artists began frequenting the saloon, the place was being run by McSorley’s son William.

Although late in life Sloan confessed he had visited McSorley’s no more than nine or 10 times, the five paintings of the interior he executed between 1912 and 1930 helped make the alehouse famous. Of the five, McSorley’s Bar is the best known. Sloan displayed it at the 1913 Armory Show, the exhibition of modern art that fascinated and scandalized American audiences. McSorley’s Bar failed to find a buyer, but 11 years later Sloan sold it to the Detroit Institute of Arts, the first of his paintings to enter a museum collection. It is, arguably, his best-known work.

In McSorley’s Bar, Sloan employs “the charm of chiaroscuro,” as his friend William Butler Yeats described it, to endow the scene with drama and like many of Sloan’s paintings, it celebrates the quotidian pleasures of working-class life. As such, it speaks to Sloan’s political as well as artistic commitments. A lifelong socialist—he was art editor of The Masses magazine from its founding in 1911—Sloan considered his art a contribution to the struggle for a more just society.

And yet, ironically, McSorley’s Bar mediated between plebeian Greenwich Village and an upscale world of art galleries and collectors, thus speeding the transformation of McSorley’s from workingman’s saloon to tourist attraction. Leftwing bohemians had discovered McSorley’s in the 1910s. In 1940, Joseph Mitchell, a journalist specializing in odd characters and historical survivals, wrote a history of the alehouse for the New Yorker, republished in his 1942 collection titled McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon. A year later, Life Magazine ran a photo essay on the alehouse.

Today, McSorley’s draws visitors from around the world. Its fame as New York’s oldest bar assures its survival (and a 1970 court order guarantees that women are as welcome as men). It’s a museum-like place. Go there to drink a pint of ale and survey relics of a past era. But don’t indulge in nostalgia. The bar Sloan depicted was rough and inhospitable. Like Sloan, you probably wouldn’t have wanted to spend a lot of time there..

John Sloan’s painting is housed at the Detroit Institute of Arts. 

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Alan Wallach teaches the history of American art at the College of William and Mary, and lives in Washington, D.C., which is, in his view, “methadone for a New York addict.” He misses the Liederkranz and onions served at McSorley’s.