William Glackens (1870-1938), a founding member of the Ashcan School, was at the vanguard of American art and later an effective proponent of French Modernism, responsible for bringing impressionist and postimpressionist masterworks to American audiences. A retrospective exhibition currently on view at the Parrish Art Museum invites visitors to weigh Glackens’s own artistic accomplishments against his historical influence.
Glackens cut his teeth as a young artist-reporter for Philadelphia newspapers while working his way through art school at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Some of his colleagues at the Philadelphia Press where also classmates, including John Sloan (1871-1951), George Luks (1867-1933) and Everett Shinn (1876 – 1953).
At the Academy, Glackens met Robert Henri (1865-1929) and after art school Glackens, Henri, Sloan, Shinn and Luks moved to New York City. Along with Arthur B. Davies (1863-1928), Ernest Lawson (1873-1939) and Maurice Prendergast (1858-1954), they showed as “The Eight” in a landmark exhibition in 1908 that introduced Ashcan-style realism to the American public.
Glackens’s turn-of-the-century oils, made with a restrained, dark palette, offer rewarding, subtle color relationships laid down with confident brushwork that seem to come naturally to him, qualities missing from his later-period canvases.
In 1895 Glackens travelled to France with Henri. In a rented studio in Montparnasse, Glackens painted “Bal Bullier,” ca. 1895, “La Villette,” ca. 1895 and “In the Luxembourg,” ca. 1896, Ashcan-style pictures set in the parks and ballrooms of Paris. Other highlights here from this period are “Seated Actress with Mirror,” c. 1903, a loosely painted, moody picture, and “Portrait of the Artist’s Wife,” 1904, a large painting of a seated figure which includes a plate of fruit on a table, an ambitious figure composition with still life elements.
Gritty pictures of everyday life in New York City by “The Eight” struck a chord with the public. The exhibition was mobbed on opening day and the show toured the country. But as Glackens received accolades for his uniquely American canvases, he began to drift away from Ashcan realism, turning instead toward French painting, Renoir in particular. In a letter to his wife from this time, Glackens wrote that he was “already sick of the damn exhibition. There has been too much talk about it.”
Dr. Albert C. Barnes was high school classmates with Glackens and their friendship may have prompted Barnes to collect art. In 1911, Barnes sent Glackens on a buying trip to Paris with $20,000. There, Glackens acquired pieces by Renoir, Degas, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Manet, Picasso and Matisse that now form the heart of The Barnes Foundation.
Two years later, Glackens helped organize The Armory Show, the seminal 1913 exhibition that brought American audiences European modernism, important Cubist, Futurist and Fauvist works, including Matisse’s “Blue Nude” and Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase.”
During these years, Glackens’s artwork changed. Two paintings of the New York harbor, made just five years apart and installed side-by-side at the Parrish, illustrate this stylistic evolution. In “Tugboat and Lighter,” 1904–1905, fluid strokes of greyed-out color come together to portray an active harbor, looking out across the water toward the statue of liberty shrouded in atmosphere. But “Breezy Day, Tugboats, New York Harbor,” ca. 1910, a painting of the same scene, has a much brighter, impressionist palette. In this picture the subtle, muted color is gone. Here smoke from tugboats and cresting waves are both depicted with heavy dabs of pure white paint. The sky in this later picture is full spectrum, with flecks of pink and yellow, red and green.
Like “Portrait of the Artist’s Wife,” 1904, Glackens’s “Girl with Apple,” 1909-1910, is an ambitious canvas. A large painting of a reclining nude wearing a black ribbon around her neck, this picture seems inspired by Manet’s Olympia. But unlike Glackens’s earlier painting of his wife, this canvas is stiff, with none of the loose, open brushwork of his earlier portrait. Though both figure paintings have plates of fruit, in “Girl with Apple” the apples and oranges are candy colored. These later works are derivative of Renoir, a criticism that was made at the time and still holds.
Later in life, when Glackens was complimented on an early Ashcan canvas, he replied, “It’s mud, life isn’t like that!” But he does not do his early work justice. Though later paintings had brighter colors, the chromatic relationships in his Renoire-esque canvases lack the force and refinement of his Ashcan work. On the other hand, if it had not been for Glackens’s embrace of avant-garde French painting, perhaps we would not have the cultural riches we enjoy today. In this comprehensive exhibition, visitors to the Parrish are left to ponder a complicated legacy.
William Glackens is on view through October 13, 2014, The Parrish Art Museum, 279 Montauk Highway Water Mill, NY, 631-283-2118, www.parrishart.org
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