Sunday, 13 March 2016


“I look my best when I’m totally free, on holiday, walking on the beach.” – Rosamund Pike

William James Glackens was an American painter who was born on March 13, 1870 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and died on May 22, 1938 Westport, Connecticut. His 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.

Glackens studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and at the same time worked as an illustrator for the Philadelphia Record, the Public Ledger, and The Philadelphia Press. In 1895 he spent a year in Paris and then settled in New York City, where he worked as an illustrator for The New York Herald and the New York World. He went to Cuba in 1898 to cover the Spanish-American War for McClure’s Magazine. While establishing his reputation as a graphic artist, Glackens also began to paint in oils and was a regular participant in the Pennsylvania Academy’s annual exhibitions. “Hammerstein’s Roof Garden” (1901), a cabaret scene, was his first important oil painting and was exhibited at the Allen Gallery in New York.

Glackens joined a group of artists who were also interested in depicting contemporary life. Robert Henri, with whom Glackens had travelled to Paris in 1895, was the leader of this group, which included John Sloan, George Luks, and Everett Shinn, as well as the more romantic painters Ernest Lawson, Maurice Prendergast, and Arthur B. Davies. Known as The Eight, they held one memorable exhibition in 1908, but, because of diversity of viewpoints, they disbanded.

Among Glackens’s major early paintings, “At Mouquin’s” (1905) shows a lively New York restaurant in a vivid and robust manner. Later, he became interested in Impressionism and was particularly influenced by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. During the last two decades of his life, Glackens became a regular traveller to Europe, spending much of his time in Paris and the south of France. His extensive knowledge of European art trends made him an especially valuable adviser to the American collector Albert C. Barnes.

In 1916, Glackens served as the president of the newly founded Society of Independent Artists, whose mission was to provide broader exhibition opportunities for lesser-known artists. He continued to travel to France between 1925 and 1935 to study the work of the Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists. His paintings received gold medals from annual exhibitions at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1933 and again in 1936. In contrast to many of his friends among The Eight, such as Sloan and Luks, whose personal lives were turbulent and whose finances were uncertain, Glackens enjoyed a happy marriage, a contented home life, and a steady career, though by the 1930s he was seen by a younger generation interested in abstraction, surrealism, and political art as an old-fashioned artist.

Glackens died suddenly while vacationing in Westport, Connecticut on May 22, 1938. His posthumous retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art several months later, also shown at the Carnegie Institute at Pittsburgh, was well received. His legacy is linked to that of the Ashcan school and The Eight. Although he distanced himself from some of their ideals, William Glackens continued to be considered an integral part of the realist movement in American art.

The painting above is “Summer”, painted in 1914. Glackens painted many similar such scenes of the beach and bathers and in it one can see the similarities of style, subject matter and colours with works of the French impressionists. However, Glackens’ subject matter and style did change throughout his life. Influenced by the work he saw during his time in Europe, from Hals and Manet to Frank Duveneck and the Impressionists, Glackens’ early work uses dark, dramatic colours and slashing, overlapping brushstrokes. He depicted scenes of urban life in Paris and its suburbs and painted the theatres and parks of Manhattan. He continued this style and subject matter for some time until he began to break away from The Eight. At that point, his most common subject matter was landscapes, especially beach scenes.

Later Glackens became best known for his portraits, and late in his life he focussed on still lifes. Despite the changing subject matter, Glackens’ work was clearly the product of a man who loved the fluid, unrestrained quality of oil on canvas. Forbes Watson asserted that Glackens focussed on strong colour effects, above all else, because “...the colour of the world makes him thoroughly happy and to express that happiness in colour has become his first and most natural impulse.” His paintings are, paradoxically, “haunted by the spectre of happiness, obsessed with the contemplation of joy.” In many ways, he was always the gentlest, least radical of the Ashcan artists.

1 comment:

  1. I came across Glackens in a round about way when I was examining how the Albert Barnes collection was assembled. As you say, Glacken's extensive knowledge of European art trends made him invaluable to Barnes who was a keen but non-professional art collector. In the years before WW1 started, Renoir and Manet must have been looking a bit old fashioned for Glackens, while Cezanne, Matisse and Soutine probably thrilled him more. But thankfully he bought them all for Barnes.