Isadora Duncan as Spiritual Body and Revolutionary Motion in the Works of John Sloan and Abraham Walkowitz
by Lacy Hamilton
Isadora Duncan was a modern and unconventional dancer of the early to mid-twentieth century, working during the same period as the American Modernist artists who became enamored with her dancing. Among the artists who depicted Duncan within their artwork were John Sloan and Abraham Walkowitz, active members of the Alfred Stieglitz’s circle. Despite working within the same artistic sphere, Sloan and Walkowitz approach their subject with varying interests and through differing lenses. Sloan depicts the dancer as “womanhood” itself and emphasizes the spirituality of Duncan’s figure from the position of a spectator; Walkowitz depicts Duncan as abstracted movement and boundless artistry from the position of an intimate companion.
Abraham Walkowitz’s watercolor, crayon, and ink work on paper Isadora Duncan of 1916 and John Sloan’s etching Isadora Duncan of 1915 are discussed in tandem to explore the disparities of Duncan’s influence among the American Modernists, who were creatively influenced by her dancing. The works of art are created within one year of each other, visually exhibiting the different artistic perspectives of Duncan’s figure and artistry occurring in the same period. Walkowitz’s use of vibrant color, presentation of Duncan with simplified anatomy and in motion, and omittance of a setting within a fluid medium highlight Duncan as the boundless embodiment of transcendent dance and motion. Sloan’s etching’s monochromatic color, careful anatomical definition, placement of the figure on a stage, facial personalization, and lack of abstraction portrays Duncan as a worldly dancer who conveys the ethereality of the female figure.
KEY WORDS: Abraham Walkowitz, John Sloan, Isadora Duncan, American Modernism, American Art, Contemporary Art
Isadora Duncan, an early twentieth-century dancer born in California, began her American tour in 1908 after touring for years in Europe and Russia. In 1908, Abraham Walkowitz, a Modernist artist, first saw Duncan dance, followed not long after in 1909 by a Modernist contemporary John Sloan. Both artists depicted Isadora Duncan throughout her career, seeing her whenever she made an appearance in New York City. The artists, as many other modern artists of their time, were taken by her unconventional dance style and captured her in numerous works, including Abraham Walkowitz’ss mixed media work on paper Isadora Duncan of 1916 and John Sloan’s etching Isadora Duncan of 1915.
Duncan embraced natural movement inspired by ancient Greco-Roman art forms; she dressed in classicizing robe-like gowns with drapery and folds that allowed for fluid movement of both her body and costume. Her movements often included leaping, running, and the stretching of arms, legs, and neck. John Sloan described her as “a symbol of human animal happiness as it should be, free from the unnatural trammels,” and Walkowitz felt she “broke laws and rules to create her art.” The sentiments of these artists on Isadora Duncan convey key elements of American Modernist art—the concept of unrestricted outward expression of inner feelings and the concept of breaking from previous, academic rules for art.
Abraham Walkowitz’s work in the Reynolda House Museum of American Art’s permanent collection and John Sloan’s etching in the Georgia Museum of Art’s permanent collection both feature the figure of Isadora Duncan in the act of dancing. These works were created during the period in which she established a dance studio and school in New York City. Both works ascribe the figure to Isadora Duncan in their brief titles of the same name, yet Walkowitz leaves his figure without a face to define as Duncan’s. Both representations show Duncan with both arms stretched into the air, one leg reaching out, and the other bearing weight. Sloan’s figure faces up to a light source while Walkowitz’s figure looks down to the ground. These small differences in otherwise very similar depictions of the same subject reveal the different aspects of Isadora Duncan’s dance that affected the two artists. The difference is often a matter of Sloan’s privileging of her feminine, earthly figure against Walkowitz’s emphasis on her revolutionary, ever-changing motion.
Sloan depicts Isadora Duncan on stage with curtains draped behind her that reflect the hanging drapery that she performs in. Duncan stands in a spotlight, reinforcing her place on stage. This etching’s setting is appropriate for Sloan’s relationship to Isadora Duncan as his interactions with, and therefore understanding of, her were exclusive to watching her perform on stage and occasionally seeing her at parties. Even at an intimate reception for Duncan, Sloan records in his diary that she did not rise from her seat to introduce herself to anyone, which he felt was simply Duncan “properly filling her part in life as an artist in the dance.” In this way, Sloan always saw Duncan as exclusively a performer with changing stages.
Walkowitz, who had a more informal and intimate relationship with Isadora Duncan, depicts Duncan without a setting or stage to perform on. He suggests ground with a simple ink line over which the green crayon swirls of the background stop, denoting a break in form. Although, Walkowitz allows the green color to, at times, cross over the ink line, creating a space similarly as fluid as Duncan’s dance. The abstraction of the composition does not give the viewer a concrete sense of setting but rather a general sense of the dancer grounded in an unidentifiable space. Walkowitz removes the setting from the composition, creating a flat space in which the viewer can turn their entire attention to the motion and form of Isadora Duncan.
Duncan invited Walkowitz into her studio throughout their relationship, encouraging him to study human form through her figure in motion. Through these countless studies, Walkowitz claimed to have understood her figure and movement enough to have rendered her form into artwork based on memory. Walkowitz, therefore, depicts the dancer in a manner that does not suggest the accurate recording of a single moment or dance but rather evokes the fluid and abstract nature of the dancer’s motion itself. Walkowitz claimed that in order to understand Isadora Duncan, one “had to feel the movement she made.”
Beyond the dynamic pose of the figure, Walkowitz achieves this sense of motion in composition, medium, form, and color, depicting the dancer with the same profound energy as her performances. The figure is cropped with both arms extending past the boundaries of the paper, suggesting motion that exceeds bounds. Walkowitz, who was a leading contributor to the American Modernist art movement, shows Duncan as performing dance that moves beyond the academic and historic boundaries of what art was allowed to do and be. Walkowitz suggests this unbound expression by cropping her moving form.
Walkowitz’s medium of choice, a mixed media work of ink, graphite, watercolor, and colored crayon on paper, also suggests the idea of art in motion. Walkowitz calls attention to the progression of his artwork, making the artist’s hand visible in each stroke of pigment. The swirling and curving of Walkowitz’s crayon lines, being almost transparent in some areas and thick to the point of having layered texture in others, illustrates not only the motion of Duncan’s dance but also that of Walkowitz’s drawing. The nature of these mediums suggests dynamism as well, being faster than traditional art mediums such as paint or etching. The modern notion that a sketch or drawing can be a finished work of art also reflects the similarities between Isadora Duncan’s revolutionary dance and the American Modernists’ artwork.
Finally, Isadora Duncan’s form itself, which fills the work, has a fragmented ink border, exemplified in the areas of the ankles and left thigh. Walkowitz also includes suggestions of costume and anatomy that at times exceed the bordered limits of the body, seen in the left side of the work at the chest of her gown. This depiction of her form as being non-static and boundless reflects the outward expression of dance that conveys her inner emotions.
Sloan’s work, in contrast, emphasizes the anatomy and physical form of Isadora Duncan. Walkowitz’s depiction of Isadora lacks the internal modeling and three-dimensional form of Sloan’s work. This modeling is heightened by Sloan’s choice of etching as a medium. The layering of carved lines, which create physical depth within the etching plate, translates to the page as depth through line thickness. In this way, the viewer can read the contours and weight of Duncan’s form through Sloan’s etched lines, as seen in the rolls of Duncan’s left inverted elbow and in the indentation of her chin. These layered etchings all reside within a thick border around Duncan’s figure, separating her clearly from the setting in which Sloan has placed her. Sloan privileges light and shadow to demonstrate the anatomy and build of Isadora Duncan during her performance while Walkowitz illustrates Duncan flatly with attention to the suggestion of motion and energy of her dancing.
Sloan’s depiction of Isadora Duncan’s weightier form stands in sharp contrast to Walkowitz’s flat depiction of the dancer with a slim frame from at least the waist up. In November of 1909, when Sloan was first invited to see Duncan perform, he was taken with her figure, noting her body’s “great big thighs,” “small head,” “full solid loins,” and “belly.” These anatomical features are the focus of his work, just as they were his focus during her performances. The ways in which he described her form throughout her career expressed the spirituality of femininity, stating that her figure on the stage “seems like all womanhood” and “looms big as the mother of the race.” Sloan emphasized his perception of Duncan’s figure in his work through an intricate and anatomically focused representation of her figure. There is an inherent connection of the female figure to Henri Bergson’s élan vital, which Bergson defines as the vital impulse of human life. The necessity of the female body in the creation of new life allows for Sloan to connect Duncan’s figure to the source of existence. This comparison can also be seen in Alfred Stieglitz’s portrait series of Georgia O’Keeffe, as Bergson was a favorite philosopher among the Stieglitz circle.
This etching of Sloan’s that the Georgia Museum of Art now houses is a version that is printed in black ink. Other variations of this print are printed in brown or reddish-brown ink as well. The dark neutral palette in this work and other variations opposes Walkowitz’s brightly colored work. While Walkowitz employs vibrant color to suggest the dynamism of Duncan’s movement, Sloan’s work expresses his relationship with Duncan’s dancing through formal elements of light, shade, and line thickness, having an overall lack in color. The single color that fills the etched plate and the white of the unetched portions of the print are the only colors at play in this work, acting to convey contrast and contour rather than evoke expression in hue. Sloan’s work suggests a spotlight-like light source in the upper left corner of the work. This lighting is not only additive to the suggestion of a stage setting; it provides a spiritual perspective to the work. The womanly aspects of Duncan’s figure, such as her round hips, stomach, and breasts, are highlighted by this light source. Furthermore, Isadora Duncan looks to the light, implying her connection to a divine or inspirational presence. Duncan’s figure, which seems to sway in reaction to the light source, is comparable to that of a flower blooming in the sun, connecting her feminine figure to the life of nature. The sun, being a traditional symbol for the life source, is evoked in this connection and acts in a Bergsonian way in Sloan’s work. Here, Sloan suggests the idea of the élan vital in the depiction of Duncan’s womanly connection to the life source. Sloan also conveys this connection in his diary while recording his reactions to her performances; in one instance, he describes her body as “wholly human and holy — part of God.”
Walkowitz conveys Duncan’s influence on him as a creator partially through the use of bold, non-local color, influenced by Paul Cézanne’s late nineteenth-century to early twentieth-century artwork. Walkowitz saw the retrospective exhibition of Cézanne’s artwork at the Salon d’Automne in Paris in 1904, and it influenced his practice. Walkowitz felt that France was essential to the growth and flourishing of Isadora Duncan as an artist, stating, “I tell you, you must go to France to find Isadora.” Walkowitz would see Cézanne as an appropriate source to draw on in his depiction of Duncan because Cèzanne resided in France for the duration of his life and made a significant influence on French art. Cézanne’s reduction of forms to their essential, geometric parts is evident in Walkowitz’s depiction of Duncan, seen in his triangular representation of the chest of her gown and his circular rendering of her hair in a bun. However, most prominent is the influence of color.
Walkowitz uses flat areas of bright color to suggest natural forms. His focus was not on objective accuracy of representation but rather on subjective expression of form. The bright green and orange play off of each other as complementary colors, isolating Isadora Duncan’s figure from the background of the composition. The boldness of these colors, even appearing in thin stroke across her face, conveys the similarly bold expression of her dancing. The energy of these colors in the depictions of her hair, face, clothes, and setting conveys the similarly dynamic motion of her dancing, which Walkowitz described as “always changing.”
Isadora Duncan’s visual performances are now seen as pivotal in the world of dance, but, like many artists including the American Modernist group that John Sloan and Abraham Walkowitz belonged to, her art faced sharp criticism from those accustomed to the academic art forms of and before their time. Art was seen as constantly progressing throughout history, persistently reacting to and improving on previous modes of representation. John Sloan and Abraham Walkowitz as well as their works’ subject Isadora Duncan represent a clear break from this history. Walkowitz wrote, “She was a creator, and creation is never imitation… She broke laws and rules to create her art.” While this sentiment was a compliment in the eyes of Walkowitz, critics – including one of Sloan’s friends – saw her passing of “the limitations of the art of dancing” as offensive and lacking in credibility.
Abraham Walkowitz and John Sloan, though with different admirations in mind, both felt inspired and connected to Isadora Duncan and her art. Their works convey a level of respect, of Duncan’s creativity, figure, and spiritual oneness, and support, of her boldness and innovation, that was unique to fellow modern artists of their time.
“Abraham Walkowitz.” In Tracing Vision: Modern Drawings from the Georgia Museum of Art, edited by Carol A. Nathanson, 232-233. Athens, GA: Georgia Museum of Art, 2011.
Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution. Translated by Arthur Mitchell. London: Macmillan Publishers, 1998.
Loewenthal, Lillian. “Abraham Walkowitz.” In The Search for Isadora: The Legend & Legacy of Isadora Duncan. Pennington, NJ: Princeton Book Company, 1993.
Sloan, John. John Sloan Diaries, 1906 through 1913. 2 March 1911. Delaware Art Museum. Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives, last modified 2018.
———. John Sloan Diaries, 1906 through 1913. 14 November 1909. Delaware Art Museum. Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives, last modified 2018.
———. John Sloan Diaries, 1906 through 1913. 15 February 1911. Delaware Art Museum. Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives, last modified 2018.
———. John Sloan Diaries, 1906 through 1913. 16 November 1909. Delaware Art Museum. Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives, last modified 2018.
 John Sloan, John Sloan Diaries, 1906 through 1913, 16 November 1909, Delaware Art Museum, Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives, last modified 2018, 596-7.
 Lillian Loewenthal, “Abraham Walkowitz,” in The Search for Isadora: The Legend & Legacy of Isadora Duncan (Pennington, NJ: Princeton Book Company, 1993), 147-154.
 Loewenthal, “Abraham Walkowitz,” 147-154.
 John Sloan, John Sloan Diaries, 1906 through 1913. 14 November 1909, Delaware Art Museum, Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives, last modified 2018, 595.
 Sloan, 14 November 1909, 595.
 Loewenthal, “Abraham Walkowitz,” 147-154.
 Ibid, 147-154.
 Sloan, 16 November 1909, 596-7.
 John Sloan, John Sloan Diaries, 1906 through 1913, 15 February 1911, Delaware Art Museum, Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives, last modified 2018, 849.
 Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, trans. Arthur Mitchell (London: Macmillan Publishers, 1998), 359-360.
 Works of art by Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, John Marin, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Alfred Stieglitz draw especially from Bergsonian philosophy, especially his concept of the élan vital. Bergson’s writings appear in Camera Work twice, once in October 1911 and once in January 1912.
 Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, trans. Arthur Mitchell (London: Macmillan Publishers, 1998), 254. Bergson writes, “As living beings, we depend on the planet on which we are, and on the sun that provides for it, but on nothing else.” Arthur Dove’s Red Sun of 1935 and Georgia O’Keeffe’s Red Hills, Lake George of 1927 portrait suns as key figures and as nature’s élan vital.
 Sloan, 16 November 1909, 596-7.
 “Abraham Walkowitz,” in Tracing Vision: Modern Drawings from the Georgia Museum of Art, edited by Carol A. Nathanson (Athens, GA: Georgia Museum of Art, 2011), 232-3.
 Loewenthal, “Abraham Walkowitz,” 147-154.
 Ibid, 147-154.
 Loewenthal, “Abraham Walkowitz,” 147-154.
 John Sloan, John Sloan Diaries, 1906 through 1913, 2 March 1911, Delaware Art Museum, Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives, last modified 2018.
Acknowledgements: Special thanks to Dr. Janice Simon and Jordan Dopp for the support and guidance that they provided throughout my pursuit of American Modernism.