Helen Farr Sloan’s Gallery Scene

Right now, I really wish we were preparing a big members’ preview for Collecting and Connecting: Recent Acquisitions, 2010–2020, which opens Saturday, March 12. I’m ready for an evening in Fusco Gallery, listening to visitors admire the installation and delight in making discoveries about art. I want to hear my colleague Margaretta Frederick give a tour and share the inside scoop on how the works of art were selected and arranged. (She and Caroline Giddis, our 2020 Alfred Appel Jr. Curatorial Fellow, had over 1000 works to choose from!) And I want to see the Museum filled with enthusiastic art lovers, looking at the art, catching up with each other, and enjoying wine and music in the East Court. For me, in most years, spring exhibition openings mark the end of a few months of hibernation. They’re a chance to dress up and catch up with DelArt members and friends. I think we could all use this, but unfortunately we can’t gather this way this spring—not yet.

So, I’m inviting you to join me at an opening from over 80 years ago, by looking at Helen Farr Sloan’s Gallery Scene, which captures a crowded opening party. The walls are hung tightly with large canvasses. In small groups, visitors stroll about looking at the paintings and their catalogues. Some stop to greet each other and others settle into the couches to gossip. A tall man with a reddish beard—an artist, perhaps?—gestures and declaims. It might be early spring, based on the men’s overcoats and the women’s colorful ensembles. Like the characters in it, the occasion feels lively and familiar.

Helen Farr Sloan’s Gallery Scene entered the DelArt collection in 2014, when the William Glackens retrospective was on view at the Barnes Foundation. I had written for the catalogue and was teaching and giving lectures related to the show, so I must have seen the exhibition ten times. After one of those visits, I walked by Gallery Scene and recognized the painting within this painting. The large canvas on the rear wall is Glackens’ Family Group, a 1910/11 painting in the collection of the National Gallery of Art. With a little research, I was able to determine that Family Group was exhibited twice at the Whitney Museum of American Art around the time that Helen Farr Sloan painted Gallery Scene. In February and March, 1937, Family Group was in New York Realists, 1910–1914, a key exhibition for reviving interest in the early work of the Ashcan School, and in 1938–39, the painting was included in Glackens’ memorial exhibition. Helen Farr Sloan, who had studied with and befriended Glackens’ associate John Sloan in the 1920s, would almost certainly have visited these shows. In the late 1930s, she was living in New York and working with Sloan (they would marry in 1944) on Gist of Art, a book of his teachings.

Of course, this isn’t a documentary photograph, and the paintings on either side of Family Group aren’t easy to discern, so I can’t say for sure which exhibition this might be recording. Avis Berman, Glackens expert and author of Rebels on Eighth Street: Juliana Force and the Whitney Museum of American Art, suggested that, while the scale of the room makes sense for the Whitney Museum when it was on Eighth Street, Farr Sloan probably took some artistic license in the décor. (Personally, I hope the walls weren’t that shade of green!)

I love that the one painting we can recognize is called Family Group, a title that perfectly fits the mood of this gathering of friends and art lovers. I look forward to seeing this work hanging in Collecting and Connecting: Recent Acquisitions, 2010–2020.

Heather Campbell Coyle
Chief Curator and Curator of American Art

Image: Gallery Scene, c. 1938. Helen Farr Sloan (1911-2005). Oil on board, 22 × 24 inches. Delaware Art Museum, Bequest of Helen Farr Sloan, 2014. © Delaware Art Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.