February 27: The Man Who Defined “Early America” for the Greatest Generation

 

Many Americans think of Eric Sloane as the man whose paintings, drawings, books, and stories defined early American life, work, culture, and values to a post-World-War-II generation of proud and patriotic Americans.  But even a cursory examination of Sloane’s extraordinarily diverse accomplishments reveals him to be a true Renaissance person, one of the most versatile, prolific, and creative forces of his time.

Eric Sloane (Image by Robert Nugent)

Sloane was born Everard Jean Hinrichs to a wealthy New York City family on February 27, 1905. His early interest in art was nurtured by a friendly relationship with neighbor Frederick Goudy, the font designer whose classic Goudy and Copperplate typefaces are still in worldwide use. Goudy taught his youthful protegé how to hand-paint letters and signs, a skill Hinrichs employed while pursuing his interest in early aviation at Long Island’s Roosevelt Field. Throughout his life,

Sloane painting his massive cloud wall mural for the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in 1976.

whenever a topic captured  his  interest,  Sloane decided the best way to get a  feel for it  was to dive  in and become as much of an expert on the subject as  possible. At Roosevelt Field, pilots would hire Hinrichs to paint their identifying marks on their planes. One of the most celebrated of these aviation pioneers, Wiley Post – the first pilot to fly solo around the world – taught Hinrichs to fly in exchange for Hinrichs teaching him how to paint.

Hinrichs changed his name to Eric Sloane in art school, after a teacher recommended that students  paint their early works under a pseudonym.  He liked the nom de plume so much he kept it, and as Eric Sloane,  he quickly developed a reputation as a talented artist with an unusual sense of focus. His first works were landscapes in the spirit of the Hudson River School painters, but through his flying experience he became known for  his  paintings of sprawling cloudscapes. Amelia Earhart is said to have bought his first sky painting. Sloane’s largest cloudscape was a  75-foot-long sky mural painted in 1976 for the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum.

Sloane is famous for his ability to capture the iconic barns of the Connecticut countryside .

Just as Sloane became a pilot to better understand and experience the sky, he studied almanacs and scientific texts to better understand weather – and in the latter column, he is often credited with being the first television weatherman by having local New England farmers call into his local television broadcasts with weather information.Sloane  made his home in Litchfield County for decades, a restless genius admired as a  a painter, collector, author, builder, curator, pilot, and meteorologist.  As an artist,  Sloane painted thousands of images, sometimes as much as a painting a day. He preferred to paint from memory, creating realistic portraits of rural America in oil paint. Sloane is  famous for his ability to capture the iconic barns, farms and covered bridges of the Connecticut countryside. Daily painting did not keep him from writing more than 30 books – proof of his claim that “the best way to learn about anything is to write a book about it.”

Sloane authored over 30 books. Many celebrated the virtues of craftsmanship, independence, self-reliance and community associated with early America.

While restoring a succession of Connecticut homes in the 1950s and 1960s, Sloane became fascinated with early American architecture, tools and material culture, and he used this interest to define  the nature of American identity for a country moving toward the 200th anniversary of its independence. For Sloane, early American tools were not just useful objects, but ways to capture a sense of Americana, of roots and craft, self-reliance, independence,  and everyday engagement with the world. Sloane’s massive collection of early American hand tools, which he arranged artistically for display (labeled with his trademark elegant calligraphy) is preserved in a  in a rustic museum in Kent, created through a partnership between Sloane, the state of Connecticut and the Stanley Tool Works. The Eric Sloane Museum was completed in 1969, and today the state-run museum houses not only Sloane’s tool collection, but a re-creation of his artist’s studio.

Sloane reveled in the fact that he was seen by some contemporaries, including a writer for the Bridgeport Post  in 1961, as “an anachronism in an age of chrome, plastics and tailfins – a man who successfully has drifted against the current.” He firmly believed  much of modern art and entertainment was  ungrounded and lacked  a certain mindfulness. He sought through his art and writing to advance instead traditional American and Emersonian values of self-reliance, independent thinking, and small town communitarianism,.  Until his death in 1985, Sloane lived happily in Warren, Connecticut, contentedly engaging with small-town life.  A  remembrance in the Hartford Courant after his death noted that the artist had bankrolled a clock for the Warren church steeple, and generously supported local causes including the fire department, which made him an honorary chief.

Further Reading

Video: Eric Sloane Museum, Connecticut’s Cultural Treasures

 

Eric Sloane’s Declaration of Self-Dependence,” ericsloane.com