A leader of the group of great American painters known as The Eight, John Sloan became known for his depictions of city life in the early Twentieth Century. He also painted many portraits of his friends and family. Clown Making Up, executed relatively early in his career, is a rare example of a posed genre subject painted from a costumed professional model. It was the first Sloan to be purchased for the museum collection in 1919 by Duncan Phillips, during the period in which Phillips was laying the foundation for the collection.
Duncan Phillips, whose early taste in art included narratives and romantic subjects, was undoubtedly attracted to the intimate quality of Clown Making Up. Phillips later interpreted the painting as the depiction of a “lonely individual caught in the maelstrom - the tired old clown, who must be funny, ‘making up’ his haggard face by candle-light in some dusty dressing room.”