In 1975, during a three month period working in New York City, I ventured over to McSorley’s Old Ale House for lunch, having read Joseph Mitchell’s well-known book on the saloon. At the time I was aware of the several paintings of the famous watering hole by New York artist, John French Sloan, I was unaware then, however, that a number of Sloan’s artist contemporaries also had memorialized McSorleys.
First, a bit about Sloan (1871-1951). He is best known for his urban genre scenes and ability to capture the essence of neighborhood life in Gotham City. Sloan, shown here, has been called "the premier artist of the Ashcan School who painted the inexhaustible energy and life of New York City during the first decades of the twentieth century.” As shown above and in paintings below, McSorley’s not only was his regular drinking establishment but a favorite scene to paint. Above is Sloan’s “McSorley’s Bar, 1912.”
In a painting called “McSorley’s Cats,” Sloan captured John McSorley, the founder of the saloon at 15 East Seventh Street, in scene with the owner’s rat-catching pet cats. McSorley had arrived in America in 1851 at the age of 18. The date on which he started his saloon is in dispute. McSorley gave it as 1854 but others date it to 1865. As in the beginning, the establishment still serves only ale and beer with its food, never the hard stuff. As shown below, Sloan also could capture quiet moments as in “McSorley’s Back Room.”
Sloan’s fellow Ashcan School member, George Luks (1867-1933), also painted a scene at McSorley’s. Known for his depiction of New York City life, Luks's work typifies the real-life scenes painted by the Ashcan School artists. At McSorleys, as shown below, the artist has captured figures at the bar, one smoking, the other reading a newspaper. Behind them a bartender is at work.
Reginald Marsh (March 14, 1898 – July 3, 1954) was an American painter born in Paris, most notable for his depictions of life in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s. Jobless men are subjects that appear repeatedly throughout his work. He often worked in pen and ink and in ink wash drawings. Here he has captured a scene in McSorley’s where a gent likely down on his luck has stopped for a beer and is trying to warm up in New York’s frigid winter by hugging the saloon stove.
Perhaps the most unusual artist to paint the interior of McSorleys was Childe Hassam. Frederick Childe Hassam (1859 – 1935) was an American Impressionist painter, noted for his urban and coastal scenes. After living in France for some years, Hassam and his wife returned to the United States in 1889, taking residence in New York City. Hassam began to paint urban scenes, often using a palette of blacks and browns (considered "forbidden colors" by some Impressionists) to create his paintings. This is evident in the dark hues Hassam used in his image of a lone drinker at McSorley’s bar.
Another artist who chose McSorley’s was Louis George Bouché (1896 – 1969), an American painter with whom I was earlier unfamiliar. Very little has been written about him. Born in New York City, Bouché spent many years abroad and returned to teach at the Art Student’s League in New York. A friend of Reginald Marsh, his art is not easily categorize. Below he has captured the McSorley bar scene somewhat as Sloan had done earlier.
The cartoon of McSorley’s below is by Don Freeman (1908-1978), once a student of John Sloan at the Art Student’s League. Freeman was known for carrying a sketchbook with him wherever he went. His images depicted New York City, the faces of the people he observed on the streets, and citizens down on their luck. His pen and ink drawing here depicted some well known McSorley customers. Note that Freeman included the potbellied stove and the cats.
My own memory of lunch at McSorley’s is dim. I remember having a corned beef sandwich on rye that was mediocre and a glass of ale that was good. The place seemed a bit dark and dingy, and with my historical interest satisfied, I never went back. Below is a photo of the saloon interior as it looks today. The bar, clock, stove, light fixtures — appear as they did in the past. One major change: A female bartender. Women were not allowed in McSorley's until August 10, 1970 and it took a lawsuit to force their admittance.