Eric Sloane: an artist in the clouds

With the reopening of the Museum’s West Galleries on October 14, 2022, two murals by artist Eric Sloane will be on display. The Land flight environment mural (commissioned for the inauguration of the Museum in 1976) was reinstalled in the entrance hall of the Avenue de l’Indépendance. In the new Thomas W.Haas we all fly gallery, a lesser-known mural titled weather fresco appears again for the first time in nearly 40 years. Both murals highlight artist Eric Sloane’s pivotal role in communicating the relationship between time and flight through art.

Eric Sloane draws clouds for the Land flight environment mural circa 1976. (Smithsonian Institution)

Eric Sloane paints the weather fresco at the National Air and Space Museum circa 1976. (Smithsonian Institution)

The inspiration of an artist

Sloane was born in New York in 1905 as Everard Hinrichs, and as a child filled sketchbooks with depictions of clouds and made weather instruments from household items and magazine kits. As a young artist, he changed his name to “Sloane” to honor his mentor John Sloan, a famous American artist from the Ashcan school of painters, but added an “e” at the end. His first name, “Eric”, is taken from the word America and reflects Sloane’s patriotism. Ashcan School painters depicted daily life in New York City in dark, grainy hues with subject matter focused on societal issues including immigration, apartment buildings, and prostitution. So why did Sloane turn his attention to the sky? It was a combination of Sloane’s early love of the weather and significant activities in the sky during Sloane’s formative years as an artist.

Major aviation milestones come from airports near Sloane’s residence at the Half Moon Hotel in Coney Island, New York. Charles Lindbergh, the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic in May 1927, left nearby Roosevelt Field in the Spirit of Saint Louis plane and landed about 33 hours later in Paris. Amelia Earhart flew from airports in New York and New Jersey and became the first female pilot to cross the Atlantic Ocean solo nonstop in 1932. Apparently Sloane sold her first cloud painting to Earhart. Sloane worked as a sign painter and mural artist as the hotel’s official artist-in-residence, and the hotel lounge was a local “watering hole” for famous pilots visiting nearby airfields. Naturally, many pilots employed it to paint registration numbers and names on their planes, and as a result, it had opportunities to fly. For example, Wiley Post, the first pilot to circumnavigate the globe with Harold Gatty in 1931 in the Winne Mae plane, then solo two years later, gave Sloane his first flight. The National Air and Space Museum houses the Wiley Post’s Winne Mae, by Charles Lindbergh Spirit of Saint LouisAmelia Earhart’s Lockheed Vega and the plane of several of her other pilot friends.

A little-known influence in Sloane’s artistic endeavors is his second wife, Barbara Lawrence Sloane. (Sloane has been married seven times.) A newspaper article calls Barbara “queen of the air” for her wire trapeze act in a circus troupe. She later served as a pilot for her husband and claimed to be learning to fly to help her husband sketch cloud formations up close. She said: “I take him on my plane and watch him take color notes for his paintings. And on every trip, day or night, I really have a wonderful time. Sloane’s painting night sky in the Museum’s art collection evokes the feeling of flying among the clouds.

Eric Sloane, night sky, undated, Oil on board, National Air and Space Museum. (Smithsonian Institution)

As an observer of clouds from the ground and the sky, Sloane understood the natural forces of weather. He dedicated books to teaching meteorology with simple drawings and explanations with a sense of humor. In an illustration of his clouds, he mocks his art and adds the comment “Tsk, Tsk, very unscientific”. At the start of World War II, the US Army Air Force employed Sloane as an illustrator to train young pilots on weather and the effects of temperature on their bodies at altitude. Sloane had a knack for explaining complicated science in simplistic terms while sharing his knowledge and love for the wonders of nature. His expertise didn’t come from professional training – he learned by researching, paying close attention, drawing and writing about it. In Sloane’s book The sky and the artisthe sums up his relationship with flight and states, “Each day in this age of flight brings us closer to feeling at home among the clouds.”

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