John Sloan’s ‘Dust Storm, Fifth Avenue,’ and the Environmental Implications of Industrialized New York City

The painting depicts the Flatiron Building at the corner of Madison Square Park amidst a turbulent windstorm.

American painting has continuously investigated the relationship between the citizens of the United States and their natural landscape. In the early twentieth century, the development of cities posed extreme challenges to city spaces. Often revealing struggles in urban life and its hazardous implications, the natural environment organically contended with the growing American city. This juxtaposition between the man-made and the natural is well-documented through representations of early twentieth-century life in New York City. As skyscrapers rose and industry boomed, New Yorkers were forced to face new natural disasters because of this ingenuity and architectural progress. 

John Sloan’s (1871-1951) Dust Storm, Fifth Avenue, ca. 1906, exposes this contentious bond and highlights the tenuous balance between the city and nature. Revealing this contrast through the depiction of a chaotic city scene, Sloan’s painting displays anxieties created by urban progress. The invention of new environmental hazards produced modern problems for the city dweller. Sloan emphasizes how New Yorkers competed with the physical demands of their rising city. Modernization did not always produce positive experiences for every individual. A deeper examination of both the culture of New York City and its changing urban environment brings a new narrative to the forefront of the conversation. Artists grappled with the changing infrastructure within these spaces and contextualized their experiences through painting.

Sloan noted in his diary on 10 June 1906, “in the afternoon, walking on Fifth Avenue, we were on the edge of a beautiful windstorm, the air full of dust and a sort of panicky terror in all the living things in sight.”[1] His statements expose the fear connected with progress. As New York City rapidly industrialized at the turn of the century, its inhabitants were forced to face the less glamorous side of architectural accomplishments, including changes to wind patterns, loss of environs, and less green space. Simultaneously, these new innovations removed the natural environment and produced new problems for the urban city dweller like dust pollution and extreme wind tunnels.

Similarities in Architecture 

Initial responses to the Flatiron Building fit within the anxieties over skyscrapers often discussed in popular periodicals. Emphasizing its commanding presence, Sloan’s work showcases the building’s design. Sloan’s painting remained faithful to the Flatiron Building’s aesthetic and architectural construction. An 1892 article in Engineering Magazine by noted architect, Dankmar Adler (1844-1900), stated, “in a utilitarian age like ours, it is safe to assume that investors will continue to erect the class of buildings from which the greatest possible revenue can be obtained with the least possible outlay.”[2] Adler’s comments expose the monetary concerns imbued in the building’s construction. Skyscrapers, in his view, were cost-effective and provided real estate value to the land the building was sitting upon.[3] The profile of the Flatiron Building, in its iconic triangular shape, revealed its potential to generate as much revenue as possible. Its wider middle section, for example, provided increased capacity for office space. 

The Flatiron Building, ca. 1902, Detroit Publishing Company, Courtesy of Getty Images.
[Image description: a picture of the Flatiron Buidling, looking south at the intersection of two streets filled with cars, cable cars, and people. In the front of the building, a sign that reads “FOR RENT”]

At the time of its completion in 1902, the building was the only skyscraper in an otherwise low-rise area.[4] Built by leading Chicago architectural firm, D.H. Burnham and Co., the Beaux-Arts-style, an architectural style that used historic forms and decorative details, conveyed references to classical aesthetics while the triangular shape and tall height implied progress towards the future.[5] The Renaissance-revival style peeks through the storm ridden clouds above while the twenty-two-building centers Sloan’s painting. Although muted through shades of beige and grey, the building’s position reveals the sharp contrast between land, infrastructure, and sky. Connecting the human with the natural, the Flatiron Building exists as a bridge between sky and street and on the left side of the building, a handful of windows reflect the passing of sunnier skies. 

Beyond monetary apprehensions, the implementation of the Flatiron Building changed the physical landscape of Manhattan. City inhabitants constantly grappled with the physical alterations of their city, and as buildings rose and became centers of commerce, the visual structure of the urban landscape also infiltrated the consciousness of urbanites.[6] Sloan depicted this transformation through soft light-brown brushstrokes that visibly mar the bottom of the building. Swooping downwards on Broadway and then upwards on Fifth Avenue, Sloan’s brushstrokes cloud the setting and give authority to this dust storm. This diminished perceptibility presents terror within the scene. The unknown creates tension, causing the viewer to frightfully ask questions such as, what is down there, what is in there, and what is behind there? As the dust circulates through the sky, infecting the air and hindering eyesight, smaller buildings are enveloped as the Flatiron displaces the environment and the consequences of innovation assume the center of the viewer’s attention. Each compositional element highlights these fears by showcasing urban life’s uncleanliness and its detrimental physiological and environmental effects. 

Rationales for Anxieties

During the Progressive Era, urban streets were spaces of disease and pollution. Streets were constructed of compacted dirt which did not properly drain waste or always remain steadfastly stuck to the ground.[7] When skyscrapers rose in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries, they displaced trees and grass from the physical landscape of the city. Dust storms were the result of the dirt material of streets becoming dry and having no natural environs, like trees, to catch the particles when cold and warm fronts moved through the atmosphere.[8] The subtraction of the organic infrastructure from the landscape instigated problems for the city dweller, such as the foul air that arose from soil contaminated by improper drainage, which not only infected the ground, but also polluted the atmosphere. As dust from the street clouds Sloan’s image and noticeably affects each person portrayed, the terror in the scene derives from the physical effects of wind on the body and the unkempt nature of the urban streets. 

Sloan’s painting is driven by the sense of the ominous that the scene projects. This feeling is articulated by the marauding sky, dark and menacing as it consumes the Flatiron Building. The sky is marked by a stark contrast between peace and terror. Day that was once dreamy and conspicuously peaceful has been pushed aside by this impending force of gloom and blackness. Looming above the scene, a dramatic line separating the clear and stormy skies instantaneously gives the impression that dangerous forces are at large in this urban habitat and that these changes occurred without ample warning. 

A friend of Sloan stated, “When we strolled down Fifth Avenue and looked up at the Flatiron Building, and we saw the wind brush the skirts of shop girls flying across the street on the way home from work, of course he talked about seeing ‘new pictures.’”[9] Attentive to the physical effects that dust had on women’s clothes and bodies, Sloan’s painting also contended with environmental effects on the body produced by the building. The cause and effect of architecture upon the urban landscape relied on the inconvenient locale of the building. Its innovative design, chosen for its ability to yield greater profits, yielded a detrimental consequence of progress for passersby. With dust swirling across Sloan’s canvas, the marauding Flatiron Building, enveloped by the dust storm, was the impetus for a frightening environmental event.

[1] Helene Barbara Weinberg, American Impressionism & Realism: A Landmark Exhibition from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (New York, NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009), 71.

[2] Dankmar Adler, “Tall Office Buildings,” Engineering Magazine, 1892, 766.

[3] Mona Domosh, Invented Cities: The Creation of Landscape in Nineteenth-Century New York & Boston (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996), 80.

[4] Ibid. 

[5] Henry Hope Reed and Edmund V. Gillon, Beaux-Arts Architecture in New York: A Photographic Guide (New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1988), 26.

[6] Max Page, The City’s End, (New Haven, CT Yale University Press, 2008), 29.

[7] Daniel Eli Burnstein, Next to Godliness: Confronting Dirt and Despair in Progressive Era New York City (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 37.

[8] Ronald A. Reis, The Dust Bowl (New York, NY: Chelsea House, 2008), 29.

[9] John Sloan, John Sloan’s New York Scene: from the Diaries, Notes, and Correspondence, 1906-1913 (New York, NY: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1965), xix.

*Cover image: John Sloan, Dust Storm, Fifth Avenue, ca. 1906, oil on canvas, 22 x 27 in., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY.

[*Cover image description: a painting with the Flatiron Building in the background, with a black cloud hovering above. To its left, green trees; to its right, a line of buildings. On the ground below, adults and children scurried about in a panic, some of them holding on to their hats. There’s also a vehicle with passengers in it.]

Edited by Trang Dang, reviewed by Evelyn Ramiel.

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