William Glackens - Biography and Legacy
Biography of William Glackens
Childhood and Education
Williams Glackens was born the youngest of three children to Elizabeth and Samuel Glackens, a clerk and cashier for the Pennsylvania Railroad. While a family of modest means, Glackens was well educated, attending Central High School with future artists John Sloan and James Preston, and the future pharmaceutical inventor and collector Albert C. Barnes. Glackens, whose nickname in school was "Butts," showed a proclivity for art at an early age and often produced funny drawings and scenes of school life for the amusement of his fellow students.
In November 1891, he enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. It was here that he, Sloan, and a few other students formed the "Charcoal Club" in 1893. This informal group aimed to explore themes not offered as part of the academics of the Academy, most notably nude figure drawing. The group was also highly social, generating many stories of its members working through the night and waking up among their drawings and emptied bottles of alcohol.
Aside from his formal education, Glackens was greatly influenced by his experiences as an artist reporter for several newspapers, beginning at the Philadelphia Record in 1891. His job required him to learn to draw quickly and produce work on tight deadlines. He was also thrust into an atmosphere quite unlike the quiet studio; once he fell into a pool of blood when sketching a murder scene. Leaving his studies in October 1894, he began working as a staff artist reporter for the Philadelphia Press with fellow artists Sloan, Edward Davis, George Luks, and Everett Shinn. During this time, Sloan introduced Glackens to the artist and charismatic teacher, Robert Henri. Henri would become the center of their artistic group and the most visible member of the soon-to-be-coined Ashcan School.
Returning from a 1896 trip to Europe with Henri, Glackens moved to New York City where he would often frequent the open houses Henri held at his studio. He took a job at the New York Herald and also began taking on work as a magazine illustrator. This provided steady income for the next decade and a half, as he produced more than 1,000 illustrations. Many were lighthearted scenes, but McClure's Magazine sent him to Cuba to cover the Spanish-American War. On his way home from this assignment, he contracted malaria, an ailment that would resurface throughout his life.
His 1904 marriage to artist Edith Dimock, daughter of a wealthy family, provided enough financial security for Glackens to focus on painting. Edith appeared in works such as Portrait of the Artist's Wife (1904), as did his children, Ira and Lenna. Although generally a reserved man, Glackens did become involved in politics, protesting Prohibition and supporting the suffragist movement by marching in parades with his wife.
In 1907, unhappy with their lack of representation in key exhibitions, Glackens and his friends made the decision to split with the National Academy of Design. Led by Henri, Glackens, and six other artists hosted an independent exhibition at the Macbeth Galleries in New York City. The show opened to the public on February 3, 1908 and proved a success. The press referred to them as "The Eight" and this group formed the key artists known as the Ashcan School (so named for their urban themes painted in somber dark colors with pronounced gestural brushstrokes).
Almost immediately however, Glackens's approach to artmaking set him apart from the Ashcan School. He did not like capturing the grittier aspects of life and preferred a brighter palette. He also chose to depict lighter themes such as shoppers, family outings, and city parks.
Glackens helped to organize the American section of the groundbreaking Armory Show of 1913. Yet, despite exhibiting his own works, he was more impressed with the European art on view, stating "Everything worthwhile in our art is due to the influence of French art. We have not yet arrived at a national art [...] I am afraid that the American section of this exhibition will seem very tame beside the foreign section. But there is a promise of renaissance in American art." Despite his admiration for modern, more abstract European painting, however, Glackens would remain a realist artist.
Glackens's knowledge of European art had a profound impact on one of the greatest American collectors, Albert C. Barnes. When Barnes, asked Glackens to travel to Europe in 1912 to purchase paintings for him, these works became the foundation for the esteemed Barnes Collection in Philadelphia.
Glackens's later paintings included figurative work, landscapes, and floral still lifes, rendered in increasingly gestural brushstrokes. His style became much more Impressionist in these years. Even before his 1925 departure for Europe, however, his health had begun to decline. Returning to the United States six years later and still ailing, he was mostly limited to still lifes. Yet these paintings were enthusiastically received; Guy Pene du Bois said that the artist was responsible for "some of the most vibrant flower pieces known to our painting."
Glackens died of a cerebral hemorrhage in May of 1938 while spending a weekend visiting fellow artist Charles Prendergast in Westport, Connecticut. Before the end of that year, the Whitney Museum in New York City hosted a month-long memorial exhibition that included 132 paintings and works on paper.
The Legacy of William Glackens
William Glackens's ability to capture the moments of contemporary daily life is at the heart of his contribution to modern art. He translated French Impressionism into a distinct American style by modernizing its palette and depicting analogous scenes of 20th-century life in New York. Glackens's interest in cultivating an American style would also be important to contemporary American modernists, including Marsden Hartley and John Sloan. As part of "The Eight," he was instrumental in the break from official academies and the popularization of independent exhibitions. The Society of Independent Artists, which hosted an annual public exhibition from 1917 until 1944, was closely modeled on this example.