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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

John Sloan's "McSorley's Bar"

McSorley's Bar courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts

A century ago, John Sloan--a member of The Eight, perhaps New York's most famous group of early 20th-century artists--painted McSorley's Bar, the best-known of the many paintings and drawings he would create of New York's oldest bar. As we've noted in previous blog posts, McSorley's was founded in 1854. Not only had little changed when Sloan painted his interior in 1912, but little has changed today. The saloon continues to serve only one thing, its own ale, in two varieties: light and dark. The walls are still crammed with memorabilia stretching back to the saloon's founding.

John Sloan arrived in New York in 1904, and seems to have discovered McSorley's in 1912. After two visits in the space of a week, he began painting McSorley's Back Room, which Sloan reverently described as being "like a sacristy." Soon, Sloan returned to paint what would be his most notable depiction of the saloon, McSorley's Bar, which the artist selected as his entry in 1913 Armory Show. (By the way, the man behind the bar drawing a glass of beer is Bill McSorley, son of founder John McSorley.)

In 1928, Sloan returned to the saloon as the subject of a pair of paintings, McSorley's at Home, and McSorley's Cats. While the bar was famous in the 1920s for having well over a dozen cats in residence, the cat painting was actually based on a lithograph Sloan had made in 1913, which had already been widely reproduced. Sloan's final painting of the saloon was McSorley's Saturday Night, completed in 1930. It's interesting to  note that these final paintings--which show a crowded, popular bar--were made during Prohibition, a law that McSorley's openly ignored.

As Grant Holcomb notes in his article, "John Sloan and 'McSorley's Wonderful Saloon'" (paywalled, I'm sorry to say):
In 1941 McSorley's requested an autographed picture of the artist as many visitors "learned of the old place through your famous paintings of it and always ask if we have a photograph of you."
If anyone is the neighborhood, please stop by and see if John Sloan's photo is still hanging on the wall.

Many things have remained unchanged about McSorley's in the last century, but one major change was the admission, in 1970, of women, who had been banned up to that point. Twenty-five years ago, in 1987, the bar finally added a women's restroom to accommodate female patrons.

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Discover more of New York's past in Inside the Apple

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