The ARTnews guide to the Ashcan School, a uniquely American art movement –

There was a time when Election Day – loud, electrifying, a cause for hopeful celebration – rocked metropolitan cities like New York. These days, most of us vote in elementary schools that are in dire need of fresh paint and frequented by sleep-deprived poll workers. In contrast, election night (1907), by Ashcan School painter John Sloan (1871-1951), shows us how exciting it can be to vote and wait for the results at the turn of the century.

Excerpt from Sloan’s diary, November 5: “. . . walked around in the afternoon and saw boys in droves, scavenging for fuel for their election fires tonight. . . . after dinner. . . and saw the loud trumpets, confetti throwers, and “ticklers” in use – a little feather duster on a stick that is pushed into each girl’s face by the men, and into the men’s face by the girls.

This certainly does not describe a day of civic duty in modern times. Sloan’s painting, however, buzzes with modernity. The elevated trains in the background had been open to the public for less than 40 years. The first automobile was only a few months away. The crowd is flanked by electric streetlights (some of the city’s first) lining the streets. Sloan captures the scene, its movement, the cacophony. (And what’s with those ticklers? We’d probably be arrested today for trying to liven up the local voting site with “a tickler.”)

Four characters dominate the canvas. In the center, a woman in red, tickler in hand, bends down as if to shout something to a friend in the crowd. But upon closer inspection, you notice her hand, chasing the smiling man behind her who covers her with a handful of confetti. In his other hand he holds one of the “loud trumpets” that Sloan spoke of. In fact, trumpets, like confetti, are everywhere.

To the right of the woman in red, a mysterious man wearing a bowler hat faces the viewer. Which is odd for someone who is so prominently featured in the photo. Although his back is turned, it is clear that he is holding a tickler in his right hand. One could, however, be forgiven for thinking it was a paintbrush. Following the line of his outstretched arm on the thin stick, you end up staring at a blonde in the middle of the crowd, almost as if the man in the hat had placed her there.

Sloan’s rapid brushstrokes may distort some faces, but the way he manipulates paint on canvas accentuates the dynamic movement of the crowd and draws the viewer into the noisy and chaotic atmosphere. “A good-humored crowd,” Sloan wrote in his diary, “so dense in places that it was impossible to control its movements. A big election bonfire on Seventh Avenue with a policeman trying to stop its creators from adding fuel.

Norma D. Ross