Advertising Art

Top: Childe Hassam, The Billboards, New York (1896) Etching and drypoint on paper

Bottom: John Sloan, Rider in the Subway (1926) Etching and engraving on paper. Third State (of 3)

Two prints by different artists,  both American admittedly but more than thirty years apart, were in the same auction this week (top and bottom)1 using the same “hint” – for want of a better term – that the actual subject of the image is self-referential despite appearances.

In Childe Hassam’s 1896 etching (top) of billboards on a street, the poster at far left for a bookshop announces “The Hassam Book. Scribner.” The auction catalogue claims that Hassam depicted a real street scene on Broadway between 55th and 56th Streets. The print, however, suggests that Hassam thought of the billboards quite differently, as a wall of his own pictures in an exhibition, perhaps, or in his studio. In addition, posters were plastered on the billboards with liquid glue by a man with a brush pressing the paper to the wall, an action not unlike an etcher pressing the wet paper to the plate as Hassam would probably have done on this very print.

John Sloan’s 1926 etching and engraving (bottom) of  a woman reading in the New York subway also seems unrelated to the artist himself until we notice the ad behind her: “Rub with Sloan’s Ointment.” Although the phrase can intentionally be read salaciously or, more seriously, as a reference to the woman and the fertlilty of Sloan's imagination, it might also refer to the etching process and how the artist or his printer had to rub the plate with a particular mixture of acids. Michael Lobel analyzed a series of Sloan’s paintings in the Art Bulletin last year and came to a similar conclusion2

It is true that signs and billboards dot the American landscape and flood the American city. The focus, then, on  advertising posters in prints by two such different artists is not surprising. What is worth noting, at least by those who doubt that so much art depicts its own creation, is the self-referential nature of each poster, the improbability that the artist’s name would be there in the “real” world, and the poster’s link to the creative process itself.  


1. Swann Galleries. 19th and 20th Century Prints & Drawings. New York. March 8th 2012, lots 310, 337

2. Michael Lobel, .“John Sloan: Figuring the Painter in the Crowd”, Art Bulletin 93, Sept. 2011, pp. 345-68

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