Written by Art Is Essential

Art is Essential Essays vol. 1

Writers on the art that matters to them

I Was Looking at McSorley’s

Scott Bolohan

When I was young, my parents would take me to the Detroit Institute of Arts, which was my introduction to life outside of my own small world. Now, with my world consisting of three rooms, I find myself thinking of John Sloan’s McSorley’s Bar, a painting I can picture vividly from a lifetime of visits to the museum. It’s a simple painting of men at a bar. Perhaps the simplicity is what is so appealing to me now.

Since living in New York City the last decade, I’ve been to McSorley’s many times. I like to tell people to meet me there, and don’t tell them anything about the place beforehand. There’s a moment they have walking in the door, through the crowds, overwhelmed by the old photos, the beer-soaked sawdust on the floor, where they look like they’ve walked back in time. I’ll tell of its lore, the stories of Lincoln and Houdini, wishbones placed above the bar by WWI soldiers never to reclaim there. I believe half the stories and will the other half to be true.

Then I like to pull up Sloan’s painting on my phone. I tell them about growing up with the painting as this magical place that was out there in the world somewhere, so familiar to me even before I had ever been inside. By this point we have usually sidled up to the bar and into the painting. 

My favorite paintings are the ones I wish I could live in, that show the world as I want it to look. For now, my only way into McSorley’s is through Sloan’s brushstrokes, which captures the bar through a haze where things are better than reality, and will be again someday.

Scott Bolohan is Critical Read’s literary editor. 

John Sloan (1871-1951) was a painter and printmaker. He was a founder of the Ashcan school of Realist painting that took as material scenes of daily life in New York City. Sloan’s McSorley’s Bar was painted in 1912. The painting is in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts. 

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