A major exhibition of the artist's work gives this masterful, underappreciated American Impressionist his due
The critic and scholar Frank Jewett Mather once said that what he best remembered about the pictures of Robert Henri, George Luks, and William Glackens was that they offered the sense of discovery, of seeing something for the first time. These three artists, with John Sloan and Everett Shinn, founded the Ashcan School, their aim being to document daily life through a journalistic lens in the spirit of writers such as Theodore Dreiser and Stephen Crane. In 1908 they joined forces with three other progressive painters—Arthur B. Davies, Ernest Lawson, and Maurice Prendergast—in a show at the Macbeth Galleries in New York.
Dubbed by the press “The Eight,” the group was a tremendous success, but Glackens was already seeking other muses, renouncing his early dark-toned representations of metropolitan life. “It’s mud,” he said. “Life isn’t like that.” He believed that his post-Ashcan paintings offered greater discoveries and perceptual truths. In them, he presented the world afresh through the dazzle of myriad optical sensations, smitten as he was by the Europeans—by Hals, Velázquez, Goya, by the French modernists, and especially by the glowing, color-saturated palettes of Manet, Matisse, Vuillard, Bonnard, and Renoir.
“William Glackens,” the first comprehensive presentation of his work in nearly half a century, is a compelling reintroduction and reassessment of a masterful but largely underappreciated American Impressionist and Post-Impressionist. With more than 85 paintings and works on paper from the mid-1890s to the late 1930s, it explores the breadth of Glackens’s visual repertoire, from the gritty urban scenes of his early career to the comfortably posh subjects of his later practice: landscapes and seascapes from New England to the south of France and elsewhere, as well as portraits, nudes, interiors with figures, and still lifes. The exhibition was curated by the art historian Avis Berman and is accompanied by an excellent catalogue that she both contributed to and edited for the NSU (Nova Southeastern University) Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, in collaboration with the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, New York, and the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, where it will be on view November 8 to February 2, 2015.
Born in Philadelphia in 1870, Glackens went on to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. His early work as an artist-reporter for several newspapers and magazines included covering the Spanish-American War. In 1895 he went to Europe with Henri and stayed a year in Paris, then moved to New York but returned frequently to Europe. An advocate for new art, Glackens chaired the American section of the 1913 Armory Show and served as the first president of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917.
Glackens met Albert C. Barnes, the future pharmaceutical titan and art collector, at Philadelphia’s illustrious Central High School. It was a fortunate meeting for both and the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Barnes became a dedicated patron, and Glackens became Barnes’s trusted art adviser. Commissioned by Barnes, he went to Europe in 1912, acquiring works by van Gogh, Cézanne, Picasso, Renoir, Denis, Pissarro, and others that would form the core of Barnes’s superb collection.
The seaside was a favorite subject for Glackens. The lushly painted Cape Cod Pier (1908), an early example, is a sun-blasted, shadow-streaked vista of orange dunes topped by green grasses framed by a brilliant, optimistically blue sky wisped in clouds, as if a summer day had been decanted onto canvas. A few families are enjoying a beach edged by water broken into strokes of color. Two young women, at dead center, are walking across the slatted, mauve pier that bisects the surface, their backs to us, shading themselves with pastel parasols, their dresses a flurry of tinted, bright white strokes, the focal point of the composition. The artist’s resolution of the venerable contest between color and line is to include both, the tossed brushwork held in place by the geometric divisions of the landscape and the scene’s architectural structures, as if Gauguin and Cézanne had been summoned to the aid of Monet’s and Renoir’s transiency.
In Glackens’s paintings, French Impressionism takes on an American accent. From The Shoppers (1907–8), its protagonists engaged in the great American pastime, and Bathers at Bellport (ca. 1912) to family portraits, such as the tightly composed Wife and Son (1911), with its padded, hothouse atmosphere, to one of his last great paintings, the Rockwellian-titled The Soda Fountain (1935), his commitment to the practice of painting is evident. So is his love of his leisurely, haute bourgeois life, surrounded by material abundance, by family and friends, by flowers, silks, satins, and furs. He was a man at home in the world, and his paintings are full of joie de vivre. Inspired by Renoir, but not as slavishly as some critics believed, they are their own triumph of light, color, and ambience.
Lilly Wei is a critic and independent curator and a contributing editor of ARTnews.
A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 70 under the title “A Painter at Home in the World.”