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Arts Playlist: Helen Farr Sloan at the Delaware Art Museum


Artist Helen Farr Sloan is perhaps best known as the second wife of the realist painter and illustrator John Sloan.


She dedicated most of her career to promoting the work of her husband and thanks to her philanthropy; the Delaware Art Museum is home to the largest collection of his art.


John Sloan was a leading figure of the “ashcan” school of American art, an early 20th century movement recognized for its depictions of urban scenes and everyday life.


Sloan also created several portraits of his wife including “Helen at the Easel,” a painting which belongs in the Delaware Art Museum’s permanent collection.


But Helen Farr Sloan was a talented painter and printmaker in her own right and the Wilmington art institution is currently exhibiting a  collection of her work.


Born in New York City in 1911, Helen Farr Sloan displayed an early flair for drawing.  As a teenager she traveled to England and stayed with Guy Wiggins, an American painter her mother met in art school. Recognizing her talent in watercolors, Wiggins encouraged his old friend to allow her daughter to leave her privileged girls school to study art.


At 16, Farr Sloan enrolled at the Art Students League of New York where she met and studied with John Sloan. Heather Campbell Coyle, curator of American art at the Delaware Art Museum says Farr Sloan was a serious student and took copious notes in her future husband’s class.

“Sloan generally did not like his students to do that because he found that they usually wrote things down that were wrong," she notes. “But when he came around and noticed hers he said, ‘well you seem to be getting right so you can keep going.’ Eventually Helen turned these notes scrawled on the back and on the front of her drawings into the book “Gist of Drawing ”which was really important in Sloan’s career for communicating his ideas as a teacher to a broad audience.”

By Farr Sloan’s second year of study, John Sloan told her that she was ready to leave school and start her career as a professional artist and like many of his students, Farr Sloan also gravitated towards scenes of everyday life.

The 1930’s were the most productive of Helen Farr Sloan’s career.  In the exhibition there are several street scenes of New York including “WPA Theater,” a painting of a temporary venue set up in Washington Square Park as part of the Federal Theatre Project, a program to fund live performances and entertainment programs during the Great Depression.  

Elsewhere, there are etchings and lithographs from Santa Fe, New Mexico and of the modern dancer, Angna Enters, a popular subject for several New York based artists in the 1930’s.

Following the death of John Sloan’s first wife, Helen and John were married and painted side by side in New York and Santa Fe. After he died in 1951, Farr Sloan became a key resource for scholars and art leaders looking for information and art for exhibitions. One such curator was Bruce St. John who worked at the Delaware Art Museum.  Farr Sloan began donating works to the Wilmington art institution in the early 60’s, and its current curator of American art says her philanthropy has left a major imprint on the museum.

“It’s not just only her own works,” says Coyle. “She also settled the Sloan collection here which is almost 2,600 works; paintings, prints, drawings by Sloan and she also gave us about 1800 works by other artists. She also would go to auctions and buy things she thought we’d be interested in, so her legacy here was quite extraordinary.”

Helen Farr Sloan is on view at the Delaware Art Museum through Jan 10.

This piece is made possible, in part, by a grant from the Delaware Division of the Arts, a state agency dedicated to nurturing and supporting the arts in Delaware, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts.

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