Edited by Morgan Moore. Cover image courtesy of EPPH.
Throughout my years as an art historian, it’s always amazed me how beautifully unique each work of art is. Each painting, sculpture, and photograph is a meaningful product of its time and culture, a singular piece of a large, complex puzzle that makes up the entirety of art history. Art can take us back in time and open a window to a past culture’s ideas, beliefs, and history. All we need to do is expose ourselves to art of a particular time, learn a bit about that culture, and look out for certain iconography and clues within the canvas. The result is enlightening and gratifying.
One work of art that does an excellent job of providing this perspective is Hairdresser’s Window (1907) by American artist John Sloan (1871-1951). The painting depicts a street scene in 1900s New York—passersby look up into the window of a barber coloring a client’s hair. John Sloan was part of the Ashcan School, a group of American artists active between the 1890s and the 1940s. This group—comprised of American painters like George Luks, Everett Shinn, and George Bellows, and led by mentor Robert Henri—was dedicated to portraying a realistic depiction of life in New York City at the turn of the century. During the time they were active, Ellis Island was in operation, welcoming over 12 million immigrants into New York Harbor. Due in large part to immigration through Ellis Island, New York was beginning to transform from a modest city to a dense megalopolis and commercial hub. Thus, the Ashcan school sought to capture on their canvases this transitional period for New York — immigrant populations, gritty street scenes, and bustling industry, with all of the fears, anxieties, and even hopes that might have accompanied those changes. They utilized the gestural style and somber colors that harken back to Old Masters like Francisco de Goya and Diego Velazquez, and to Realists like Honoré Daumier. Many of Sloan’s paintings portray populations and street scenes set in Chelsea, an area of downtown New York City where the artist lived and worked. He depicted the world around him just as he encountered it, in all its reality and imperfection.
Hairdresser’s Window represents three key characteristics that help it express life in turn of the century New York. For example, it is clear that we are viewing an instantaneous moment in time. We see a lively street scene in the foreground of the painting. People occupy various spaces in the canvas, with one woman turned to look at us even if for a moment, while another almost exits the canvas at the left, making her way down the sidewalk. In the window above, even the placement of the client’s hair and the arms of the barber feel as if they were captured at a unique moment in time. Everything feels very temporary and hurried, and as if it might change at any moment, which definitely speaks to the reality of living in New York. I also find it interesting that most of the figures’ faces are partially or completely obscured. The woman in the barber’s chair has her back turned to us, while six of the eight figures in the foreground gaze at the scene above, their heads covered by hats. This definitely reminds me of the anonymity one feels when traveling through New York, or really any big city—no one seems to have an identity, with everyone caught up in the hurry and bustle of the everyday.
In early 20th century New York, businesses were clearly dominant, as big cities were now on the rise. Gone were the days of quaint life in one’s home country or native town—people were now moving to larger cities, even crossing oceans to do so, and hoping to make a more lucrative living in the world of big business. The composition of Hairdresser’s Window is inundated with advertisements for different goods and services, a choice that exemplifies the influence of consumerism in turn of the century New York. Furthermore, the hairdresser and her client are placed at the forefront of the canvas, while the onlookers watch from below as if they were viewing a movie or show. The strategic placement of these figures emphasizes the importance of business in this time—something that everyone wanted to partake in.
One of the advertisements portrayed in the painting is particularly striking—the one publicizing chop suey at the left of the canvas. It’s always fascinating to find everyday references embedded into paintings of a hundred years ago; this one in particular portrays the influence of immigration during this time. Just fifteen years earlier, Ellis Island had opened, ushering millions of immigrants onto American soil. They brought their entire lives with them, most notably their customs— everything from their languages to their recipes. These customs were able to amalgamate with pre-existing American norms to create something particularly unique. Chop suey is a prime example of this—it is a dish believed to have been invented in 1896 by Chinese immigrants who had come to America. It is neither distinctly Chinese nor particularly American, but an unmistakable cross between the two. This advertisement’s presence on Sloan’s canvas evidences the unique mix of cultures brought together in New York at the turn of the century.
Hairdresser’s Window convincingly opens up turn of the century New York to viewers of the present day. By reflecting on this painting and studying its components, we gain a sense of what life was like for people living in this rapidly evolving city. Art has the beautiful ability to bring us back to these previous times, and to express the unique circumstances of past cultures.