In 1904 John Sloan (1871–1951) moved to New York from Philadelphia, where he had worked as an illustrator at The Inquirer and The Press, two of the city's major newspapers, and attended classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Through the academy and the pressroom, Sloan got to know the men who would become his closest associates during his early career: Robert Henri, William Glackens, Everett Shinn, and George Luks. All of these friends had relocated to New York by the time Sloan brought his wife Dolly there to live.
Supporting himself as a freelance illustrator, Sloan settled in Chelsea and began making etchings and paintings of the streets, shops, and parks of his neighborhood, and the working-class people who he encountered there. Sloan participated in, and helped to organize, ground-breaking exhibitions of modern art, including The Eight show at Macbeth Galleries in 1908 and the Armory Show in 1913. Sloan joined the Socialist Party and made powerful illustrations for socialist publications, most notably The Masses, in the teens. In 1912 he moved down to Greenwich Village and became part of the burgeoning art scene there. Exposed to new artistic movements and spending his summers away from New York, Sloan began to produce fewer city pictures after 1914.
In 1916, Sloan began teaching at the Art Students League, where he would serve as instructor and president, on and off, through 1938. His students included David Smith, Aaron Bohrod, and Jackson Pollock. In 1939 Sloan's teachings, compiled from notes taken by his student Helen Farr, were published as Gist of Art. As teaching became his primary means of support, he produced fewer illustrations. Although he was a respected artist and teacher, Sloan sold few works in his lifetime and only a handful before 1923.
In 1943, Sloan's wife of more than forty years died. The following year, he married Helen Farr.