John Sloan was born in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania and grew up in Philadelphia. Forced to leave school in order to help support his parents and sisters at age 16, he took a job in a book and print store where he copied drawings and learned the craft of etching. He later worked in a stationary store where he designed greeting cards and calendars, and continued to etch. Sloan also attended drawing classes at the Spring Garden Institute.
Sloan later took a position in the art department of the Philadelphia Enquirer in 1892. That same year, he began to study with Thomas Anschutz at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art and also met the charismatic artist Robert Henri. A group of artists, named the Charcoal Club, formed around Henri in whose studio they met weekly to paint, receive critiques, and discuss art and social philosophy. Among this group were Sloan and three of of his fellow illustrators from the Philadelphia Press. The friends, William Glackens, Everett Shinn, George Luks, and Sloan became known as the Philadelphia Four.
In 1904 Sloan settled in New York and painted many of his best-known works during these years, focusing on urban street life as his subject matter. In 1908, Henri, who had also moved to New York, organized a gallery show of young painters. Named "The Eight," the exhibition included Henri, the Philadelphia Four and Arthur Davies, Maurice Pendergast and Ernest Lawson. This landmark exhibition was the origin of the Ashcan School of social realist painting. In 1913, Sloan helped organize the ground-breaking Armory Show which introduced European modernism to American viewers. He exhibited two paintings and five etchings. Sloan was influenced by the Armory Show, especially the more colorful palette of the Fauves and the stylized drawing of emerging abstract painters.
In 1919, Sloan traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and returned every summer for the next twenty-nine years, working out of a small studio on Garcia Street. He became an active and influential member of the Santa Fe art colony and the local community. He especially liked the Museum of Fine Art's "open-door" un-juried exhibition policy which allowed any New Mexico artist to exhibit work. Most of Sloans southwestern paintings are landscapes, although he also rendered street scenes, Indian dances and other aspects of the quiet, informal life of the desert town. He developed a keen interest in the arts of Native Americans in the region and became president of the Exposition of Indian Tribal Arts in the 1930s.