William Glackens, Cape Cod Pier (1908), oil on canvas, 26″ x 32″; Courtesy Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale
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There could be no venue more appropriate for “William Glackens” than The Barnes Foundation. Forget that the exhibition began its run elsewhere and, for that matter, the artist’s hometown status. Consider, instead, the relationship between Glackens (1870–1938) and Albert C. Barnes. The latter befriended “Butts”—Barnes’s nickname for Glackens— while attending Philadelphia’s elite Central High School. Their paths separated upon graduation: Barnes went on to study chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania; Glackens pursued art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, all the while working as an illustrator for the local press. They reconnected some twenty years later under radically different circumstances. Having moved to New York and traveled to Europe, Glackens became associated with “The Eight,” a group of painters dedicated to depicting the less polite environs of urban life—alleyways, burlesque shows, saloons, and tenement life. In the meantime, Barnes invented and put to market Argyrol, an antiseptic best known for its use in gonorrheal infections. He made millions and then took an interest in art.
Though Barnes’s enthusiasm for art was encompassing–he was particularly keen on painting, and his book, The Art in Painting, is essential, if often obstreperous, reading—Glackens steered him toward contemporary French art. Placing faith in Glackens’s eye, Barnes sent him to Europe on a mission to acquire “some good modern paintings.” The working budget was $20,000, the modern-day equivalent of close to half a million dollars. The works with which Glackens returned—canvases by Cézanne, Renoir, Van Gogh, Pissarro, and other stellar figures—would form the corpus of Barnes’s collection. (Glackens’s notebook, with a list of available artworks, is on display in the exhibition; a “Pecasso” [sic] would’ve set you back $1,000 in 1912.) Glackens continued to act in an advisory position in the forming of Barnes’s collection—that, and Barnes acquired seventy-one works by his old friend. Glackens’s role in the shaping of The Barnes Foundation is beyond dispute. For that reason alone, history should confer its blessings on the man.
Albert C. Barnes and William Glackens, circa 1920; courtesy The Barnes Foundation
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As “William Glackens” proves, history should also consider him an artist of, if not quite the first rank, then closer than might have been expected. Those inclined to fob off Glackens as the maker of pre-Armory Show period pieces or, as is typically the case, a Renoir-wannabe, should prepare to have their preconceptions dusted off, washed up, and hung out to dry. The Barnes exhibition is revelatory. Over the course of almost one hundred pieces, “William Glackens” confirms what we knew about his skills as draftsman even as it deepens our appreciation of his gifts as paint handler. And then there’s Glackens’s palette! Looking at Cape Cod Pier (1908), with its backdrop of acidic orange, or the rainbow sweep of March Day, Washington Square (1912), we can’t help but succumb to their chromatic grandeur. An out-and-out sensualist, Glackens may have gleaned his painterly tics from Renoir, but he outclassed the Frenchman in terms of chromatic fullness, compositional structure, and, at distinct moments, psychological acuity. Glackens makes his hero seem wan in comparison—an observation reinforced by a subsequent jaunt through the museum’s permanent collection with its many Renoirs.
William Glackens, Family Group (1910/11), oil on canvas, 71-15/16″ x 84″; courtesy The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
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Organized by the art historian and independent curator Avis Berman, “William Glackens” moves chronologically. We follow the young painter as he discovers Hals, Goya, Whistler, and Manet and pays homage to them with brusque and, at times, unruly brushwork—the fashionable women seen parading through In the Luxembourg (ca. 1896) are all but capsized by fleshy slurs of oil paint. Examples of Glackens’s newspaper work are characterized by an impressive brevity of touch, uncanny attention to anecdote, and a tone that is alternately sober and witty; Patriots in the Making (1907) and Far From the Fresh Air Farm (1911), Lower East Side panoramas both, evince a temperament not immune to comedy and resistant to easy sentiment. Sometime around 1908, Glackens the painter abandons a palette keyed to a supple range of grays and blacks, and amps up both light and color. Taking cues from the stern hedonism of Matisse and Bonnard’s tonal fields of knitted color, Glackens put into motion a post-impressionism that is lived-in, luxuriant and punctuated by moments of specificity— the anxious expression of the central figure in Children Rollerskating (ca. 1912–1914), say, or the surprising gust of wind coursing through At The Beach (ca. 1914–1916). Credit such moments to the former journalist and his eye for the telling detail.
The closest “William Glackens” comes to a show-stopper is Family Group (1910–11), a monumental portrait of the artist’s wife, son, sister-in-law, and a family friend in their Fifth Avenue apartment. It’s some kind of machine—Glackens takes the notion of luxe, calme et volupté and goes over the top with it. The surroundings in which the figures are ensconced is not just sumptuous, but ridiculously sumptuous: the image fairly careens with pattern, vigorous brushwork and colors saturated beyond the call of representation. Even as the composition threatens to convulse under its rhythms, the picture is held in place by a wiry tension—a sense of psychological dislocation, really. Family dynamics are ever thus, we surmise, and Glackens never attempted that kind of frisson again (though he hints at it, most markedly, in the Hopperesque The Soda Fountain ). Mostly Glackens was content to revel in the pleasures that only painting can provide—whether it be embodied in a vase of roses, the French seaside, or the play of light against a far-off Statue of Liberty. What he may have lacked in originality (or innovation), Glackens made up for in perspicacity, depth, precision, and pleasure, pure pleasure. The telling of American art will have to make a larger place for William Glackens, as will the rest of us.
© 2015 Mario Naves
This review originally appeared in the January 2015 edition of The New Criterion.