With the Museum’s west-end galleries re-opening on October 14, 2022, two murals by artist Eric Sloane will be on display. The Earth Flight Environment mural (commissioned for the grand opening of the Museum in 1976) was re-installed in the lobby of the Independence Avenue entrance. In the new Thomas W. Haas We All Fly gallery, a lesser-known mural titled Weather Mural is displayed again for the first time in almost 40 years. Both murals emphasize artist Eric Sloane’s integral role in communicating the relationship between weather and flight through art.

Eric Sloane draws clouds for the Earth Flight Environment mural circa 1976. (Smithsonian Institution)

Eric Sloane paints the Weather Mural at the National Air and Space Museum circa 1976. (Smithsonian Institution)

An Artist’s Inspiration

Sloane was born in New York City in 1905 as Everard Hinrichs, and as a child, he filled sketchbooks with depictions of clouds and made weather instruments from household items and magazine kits. As a young artist, he changed his name to “Sloane” to honor his mentor John Sloan, a famous American artist with the Ashcan School of painters, but added an “e” at the end. His first name, “Eric,” is taken from the word America and reflects Sloane’s patriotism. The Ashcan School painters depicted New York City’s daily life in dark and gritty hues with subjects focused on societal issues, including immigration, tenement buildings, and prostitution. So why did Sloane turn his attention to the sky? It was a combination of Sloane’s early love for weather and the significant activities in the sky during Sloane’s formative years as an artist.     

Major aviation milestones originated from airports near Sloane’s residence at the Half Moon Hotel in Coney Island, New York. Charles Lindbergh, the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic in May 1927, departed from the nearby Roosevelt Field in the Spirit of St. Louis aircraft and landed approximately 33 hours later in Paris. Amelia Earhart flew from New York and New Jersey airports and became the first woman pilot to cross the Atlantic Ocean solo nonstop in 1932. Reportedly, Sloane sold his first cloud painting to Earhart. Sloane worked as a sign painter and mural artist as the hotel’s official artist-in-residence, and the hotel lounge was a local “watering hole” for famous pilots visiting nearby airfields. Naturally, many pilots employed him to paint registration numbers and names on their aircraft, and as a result, he encountered opportunities to fly. For instance, Wiley Post, the first pilot to fly around the world with Harold Gatty in 1931 in the Winne Mae airplane, and again solo two years later, gave Sloane his first flight. The National Air and Space Museum is home to Wiley Post’s Winne Mae, Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Vega, and the aircraft of several of his other pilot friends.

A little-known influence in Sloane’s artistic endeavors is his second wife, Barbara Lawrence Sloane. (Sloane was married seven times.) A newspaper article refers to Barbara as “Queen of the Air” for her hire wire trapeze act in a circus troupe. Later, she served as a pilot for her husband and claimed to learn to fly to aid her husband sketch cloud formations up close. She said, “I take him up in my plane and watch him make color notes for his paintings. And on every trip, day or night, I really do have a wonderful time.” Sloane’s painting Night Sky in the Museum’s art collection conjures the feeling of flying amongst the clouds.

Eric Sloane, Night Sky, undated, Oil on board, National Air and Space Museum. On display in the "Thomas E. Haas We All Fly" gallery. (Smithsonian Institution)

As a cloud observer from the ground and sky, Sloane understood the natural forces of weather. He devoted books to teaching meteorology with simple drawings and explanations with a sense of humor. In one illustration of his clouds, he pokes fun at his art and adds the comment, “Tsk, Tsk, very unscientific.” At the onset of World War II, the U.S. Army Air Force employed Sloane as an illustrator to train young pilots about the weather and the effects of temperature on their bodies at altitude. Sloane had a gift of explaining complicated science in simplistic terms while at the same time sharing his knowledge and love for the wonders of nature. His expertise did not come through professional schooling—he learned through his research, paying close attention, and drawing and writing about it. In Sloane’s book Skies and the Artist, he sums up his relationship with flight and says, “Each day of this Flying Age brings us nearer to feeling at home among the clouds.”

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Eric Sloane, Illustration used to describe the weather for pilots, NASM Archives. (Smithsonian Institution)

Eric Sloane, Illustration used to describe cloud formations for Sloane’s book Clouds, Air and Wind, 1941.

Clouds on Museum Walls

About two years before the National Air and Space Museum opened in 1976, the Smithsonian commissioned Sloane to paint a mural for the Museum lobby. The Earth Flight Environment mural is a scenic view of a United States Southwest landscape and encompasses different weather phenomena related to flight. Shaped like the letter “L,” the mural measures 75 feet wide by 58 feet high (at its tallest point) and includes various cloud formations, rain, lightning, a rainbow, and the aurora borealis. Two aircraft appear in the differing atmospheres resembling a jet airliner and a hypersonic-powered X-15 rocket plane that flew at Mach 3 outside the Earth’s atmosphere into the edge of space. In a Smithsonian press release at the time, Sloane stated, “The purpose of this mural is to show in dramatic and interesting fashion the remarkable ocean of the air that is our atmosphere, to inspire an awareness of the great beauty of this environment and to instill an appreciation for man’s accomplishment in learning to travel through it with great speed and efficiency.”

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Earth Flight Environment mural (composite photo) showing “L” shape. (Smithsonian Institution)

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Detail of Earth Flight Environment mural with the jet airliner. (Smithsonian Institution)

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Detail of Earth Flight Environment mural with cloud formations, rain, lightning, a rainbow, and the aurora borealis. (Smithsonian Institution)

The second Sloane mural on display at the Museum in DC, Weather Mural, was displayed between 1976 and 1983 but was covered by a wall when the gallery theme changed. In 2020, contractors removed the mural (it was found in perfect condition behind the wall) and prepared it for the new Thomas W. Haas We All Fly gallery. Fortunately, the murals were not painted directly on walls but adhered to Belgium linen that can be removed and reapplied. (The movement and conservation of the murals is another upcoming blog.) 

Measuring 75 feet wide by 9 feet high, the mural depicts weather mechanics with warm and cold fronts and explanations of weather changes. Sloane details the formation of rain and hail and color codes warm air mass in red and cold weather fronts in blue. Sketches for the mural show the altitude by the thousands of feet to indicate where different types of clouds are forming in the sky. The two circles—one sharp and the other blurry—represent how we see the Sun or Moon through a front that predicts an oncoming storm or fair weather ahead. And to advert any confusion, Sloane added text to explain the weather further.

Weather Mural uncovered (from behind a wall) for the first time since 1983. (Smithsonian Institution)

Eric Sloane, Weather Mural sketch detail, circa 1975-1976, National Air and Space Museum. (Smithsonian Institution)

Eric Sloane, Weather Mural sketch detail, circa 1975-1976, National Air and Space Museum. (Smithsonian Institution)

Mystery Sketch of Weather Mural

In 2021, a new sketch of Weather Mural and an attached letter from 1974 appeared in the art collection. Sloane’s letter reads: “Herewith is a schematic layout for a mural depicting the phenomena of atmosphere and weather. There is no way at present to do a complete layout because I do not have the exact dimensions and I believe the exact coloring will be according to the opposite mural [Robert McCall’s adjacent space mural A Cosmic View also in the south lobby] and the surrounding architecture.”  Sloane goes on to say, “this mural is of such importance that I feel it should extend from the far left to the far right, while the upper vertical space can be more decorative than informative.” The letter and sketch reveal it to be the original concept or “pitch” for the main entrance lobby Earth Flight Environment mural. The clues are the Earth Flight Environment “L” shape and the mention of the adjacent “space” mural. It's uncertain why the Weather Mural concept wasn't selected for the lobby, but thankfully Sloane painted it for the original General Aviation gallery. Uncovering the mystery sketch is apropos with the recent unveiling of the Weather Mural.            

Eric Sloane was an integral part of the aviation community with his artwork and a complete understanding of aerology—the study of the atmosphere for aviation. It’s only fitting that Sloane’s legacy as a cloud painter lives on among the planes and artifacts of his old aviator friends at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

Sketch of Weather Mural and letter by Eric Sloane proposed as the initial 1976 lobby entrance mural, National Air and Space Museum. (Smithsonian Institution)

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