Wednesday, May 18, 2016
The goal of the writer of historical fiction is to bring the past vividly to life with as much authenticity as possible. The materials we can draw from are varied: diaries, novels, oral histories, contemporary articles and advertisements, historical studies of political and social life, photographs and paintings. For those of us seeking a sense of the erotic, we often must read between the lines due to the conventions of respectability. But occasionally, as with the erotic letters of James Joyce, the past does hand us an illuminating gift.
This month, I’d like to share another favorite sexy treasure I discovered—the “peeping-at-undressed-ladies” drawings of John Sloan. Now on first consideration, you might think photographs would provide the most “realistic” visual inspiration to recreate life in New York City of one hundred years ago. And indeed, the photographs of that time are helpful in terms of setting the scene. However, when it comes to a sense of what it was like to be in the city, to encounter its vitality and variety by both day and night, the work of the Ashcan School—artists including John Sloan who strove to portray the truth of modern life in the city—provides the most satisfying glimpse into the libidinous desire of the early 1900s.
Take, for example, the drawing above, Turning Out the Light (1905). From reading Sloan’s diary, John Sloan's New York Scene, 1906-1913, I know that the artist drew material from intimate scenes he spied through New York's windows. As evening fell, a lighted room in a neighboring apartment could indeed provide a provocative show. Generally speaking, detailed accounts of what went on in bedrooms in the early 1900s are quite rare, but Sloan’s drawing is worth more than a thousand words. Women in those times were officially passive in bed, but the voluptuous woman in this drawing is clearly in control. It is she who takes the initiative to begin the amorous encounter by turning off the light while her lover waits in anticipation. The glance between them leaves no doubt at the pleasure to come. The petticoat over the chair, the stocking over the headboard, the fact she must hold up her shift, which had probably already been pulled from her shoulders during foreplay suggests that some of the preliminaries have already been observed by the artist. This glimpse of the moment before offers delicious food for the imagination.
Roofs, Summer Night (1906) treats a city custom of the less affluent—seeking relief from the heat on a sultry summer night. Apparently the whole tenement building camped out on mattresses on the rooftop, the women stripping to their shifts (a long slip worn next to the skin). Here instead of being the sole voyeur, as we were in Turning Out the Light, we also observe another's voyeurism. Note the clear fascination of the man with the mustache at the right of the picture with a voluptuous woman who is not his wife (presuming the woman beside sleeping him is his spouse). The man’s desire imbues the scene with an extra kick of sexual tension that would not be present in a scene of only sleeping figures.
Sloan dials the voyeurism up even higher in Night Windows (1910). A dark male figure spies on a woman at her evening toilette, illuminated in her window as if she is on a stage, yet presumably innocent of the illicit pleasure she provides. Again it is hard not to connect the lurking male figure with the scantily clad woman taking down the laundry from the clothesline right below him, although of course the connection is less definite than the couple in the previously discussed community sleep out. But look a little closer and you'll see another man inside that apartment, appreciating his wife's shift-clad behind. Yes, life in the city is a feast of endless temptations for admiring eyes.
Of course, my favorite of these three is Turning Out the Light for its frank portrayal of female desire, pleasure and agency, but the erotic yearnings of the men in the early 1900s are just as pleasurably exposed through John Sloan’s windows into the male sensibility. Although I work in prose, I’m very grateful to him for sharing with the viewers of 2016 these visions of nights of long ago.
Donna George Storey is the author of Amorous Woman and a collection of short stories, Mammoth Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor