Duncan Phillips acquired three paintings by John Sloan between 1919 and 1922, the period during which he was laying the foundation for the museum’s collection. Phillips’s taste in art at this time was "liberal" rather than "avant-garde," and Sloan himself was a leader among the more liberal artists. But the painter, in spite of his prominence, enjoyed few sales at this period of his career, and Phillips's patronage was much appreciated, especially since the 1919 purchase, Clown Making Up, was the first Sloan purchased for a museum collection.
The Sloan Unit is unique among Duncan Phillips's designated "units" in that it has few paintings but a number of prints. In the 1952 catalogue the unit is described as containing Clown Making Up and, in addition, The Wake of the Ferry II and Six O' Clock, Winter. The three paintings (the fewest in any "unit") are supplemented by nine etchings. The purchase of the three oils in 1919–1922 fits well into the period when Phillips was seeking out younger and mid-career Americans whose work showed marked individuality but stopped short of abstraction. At this time Phillips purchased works by most of The Eight and by many of their students and younger associates. Phillips tended to favor the more decorative or poetic painters—Lawson, Prendergast, and Davies—and it is significant that, of the three Sloans, two have a marked stress on sentiment or mood, while only one shows his characteristic "city-scene" realism.
In his writings of the thirties, Phillips attempted to categorize artists and to group them by major trends. In the 1931 Bulletin, Phillips identifies Sloan as "best known for his caustic social satire in his etchings of New York." Duncan Phillips always knew that Sloan's art was more than journalism. He continued to the end of his life to exhibit the three "unit" oils among the highlights of his collection.