The subject of Six O'Clock, Winter–the Third Avenue "El" (short for "elevated
train") at the peak of the evening rush hour–reflects Sloan's ability to catch
the drama in everyday scenes. The shop girls, clerks, and working men and women
who are massed in the lower part of the canvas seem absorbed in their own
actions, rushing to their various destinations, generally unaware of the huge
elevated railway looming high above them. Here, Sloan experiments with the
effects of artificial lighting, depicting the crowd at dusk, the last rays of a
winter sun visible in the sky. The figures are illuminated by the glow of the
train's electric lights from above and from the shops at street level, with
those in the lower left of the composition cast in strong light. Loosely
brushed in, the faces have a masklike appearance, while those on the right are
almost hidden in shadow, obscuring their features.
The massive El, creating a dark diagonal sweep across
the length of the canvas, threatens to burst out of the picture frame, but it
is held in check by the vertical steel posts, which are seemingly anchored in
the crowd. Silhouetted against an ice-blue winter sky, the waiting train
appears even more powerful.
Duncan Phillips, who admired Sloan's creative
integrity and freedom from the whims of public taste, wrote in A Collection
in the Making, "We ramble with
[Sloan] by day and night–to Tammany Hall–to McSorley's famous saloon–to 'arty'
restaurants–to the six o'clock rush under the Sixth [sic] Avenue's L [sic] at