Sunday, 16 March 2014


“Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.” - Jonathan Swift

William James Glackens (born March 13, 1870, Philadelphia, Pa., U.S.—died May 22, 1938, Westport, Conn.), was an American artist whose paintings of street scenes and middle-class urban life rejected the dictates of 19th-century academic art and introduced a matter-of-fact realism into the art of the United States. He was a member of the artists group, The Eight, who favoured cheerful subjects of leisure activities over the dark manner and social realism of others in that circle.

Born in Philadelphia, Glackens attended Central High School along with John Sloan and the collector Albert C. Barnes. In 1891 he began a career as an artist-reporter for various Philadelphia newspapers and in the evenings, attended classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. That same year Sloan introduced him to Robert Henri, with whom Glackens shared a studio for a year and a half. After travelling to France and The Netherlands in 1895, Glackens moved to New York, where he continued working as an artist-reporter, magazine illustrator, and painter. In 1898 he accompanied the U.S. Army to Cuba to record the Spanish-American War for McClure’s magazine.

In 1904, Glackens gave up illustration in order to devote himself to painting. He made a second trip to Europe in 1906, returning to New York to prepare for an exhibition of paintings by The Eight held in 1908. In the same year, one of Glackens’s paintings was shown at the National Academy of Design, where the New York public was surprised at the change in the artist’s palette. After nearly a decade and a half of producing paintings that reflected the influence of Robert Henri in their muted colours and gestural brushstrokes, Glackens, inspired by his visits to France and the Netherlands, had turned to depicting outdoor scenes, using bright, lively colours.

His change in style was reinforced by frequent trips to France, including a 1912 journey sponsored by his friend Albert Barnes, who sent Glackens to France as his agent to purchase contemporary French paintings, including works by Cézanne, Matisse, and Renoir. Glackens served as chairman of the committee that selected American art for the Armory Show in 1913, and later, in 1917, was first president of the Society of Independent Artists.

Glackens’s mature style suggests Monet’s paintings of the 1860s in the broad and direct treatment of colour, quick touch, and jewel-like dashes of colour that denote foliage and the sun’s shimmering reflections on the water. Glackens distinguished himself from impressionism, however, by not allowing light to dissolve the contour of his forms. From about 1925 to 1932 he divided his time between New York and France, but he continued his involvement in the New York art world and his friendship with other artists associated with The Eight until his death in 1938.

Glackens is sometimes criticised for his similarity to Renoir. The critics branded him as an imitator. The charge was made that during the 1920s and 1930s “his once vigorous artistic personality had been blunted by too close an imitation of Renoir’s late style.” Glackens himself seems not to have been affected by any doubts about his own purpose and originality. His art did not reflect the social crises of the day, such as the Great Depression; rather, it offered a refuge from that darkness.

Collector Albert C. Barnes bought many of Glackens’ best paintings, some of which are exhibited by the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and Juliana Force were admirers and purchased works for the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Duncan Phillips purchased a Glackens oil for the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. The largest collection of Glackens’ art has been housed since 2001 at the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale, where an entire wing is dedicated to his work; the museum holds approximately 500 Glackens paintings in its permanent collection.

The painting from ca 1905 above, “Central Park in Winter” (63.5 x 76.2 cm; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City) is a favourite of mine. Glackens often favoured the almost square format shown here and this particular painting shows his style well. A nicely composed canvas, with rich colours, despite the wintry scene and fluid lines with strategically placed figures that show him to be a master of observation.

1 comment:

  1. Glackens was fortunate that he could make frequent trips to France and the Netherlands, especially if the costs were sponsored by his wealthy and cultivated friend Albert Barnes. Glackens may well have been purchasing contemporary French paintings for the Barnes collection, but he would also have found himself at the centre of the art universe (Paris) at a time when modern art was going gang busters (pre- and after WW1).