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The Spectacle of Life: The Art of William Glackens

by Jorge H. Santis


"It seemed to me that Glackens never consciously sought inspiration for his art but when he saw bathers on wide shining beaches in Long Island or children coasting on the little hills in Central Park, or a group of works sad and gay, or the people dining at old Mouquin's, or his charming little daughter in a Chinese costume, he knew he had found the things he wanted to paint... Undoubtedly Glackens preferred painting the more sophisticated life at naive moments ... his interest was in the spectacle of life ..."
- Mary Fanton Roberts, writing in Arts & Decoration 49 (January 1939) about her friend William Glackens


William Glackens (1870-1938) was enchanted by art when he was growing up in his native Philadelphia. He illustrated both a math textbook and a dictionary while still a student at the city's Central High School, and by age 21, he had been hired as an artist-reporter for the Philadelphia Record. Then, after only a year, he moved on to the Philadelphia Press and simultaneously enrolled in night classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; he also studied, independently, with a remarkable teacher and mentor, Robert Henri.

Along with such fellow students and friends as John Sloan, Everett Shinn, and George Luks, Glackens absorbed Henri's creed of portraying reality swiftly and without embellishment. Henri's approach was a natural for Glackens and his coterie, whose journalistic assignments entailed the accurate portrayal of fires, labor strikes, and other newsworthy happenings. Over the course of the next decade or so Glackens and his peers developed a reputation for depicting seamy, down-to-earth material that gained them nicknames like the Black Gang and Devotees of the Ugly. They later came to be known by the less-pejorative term the Ashcan School.

Glackens's infatuation with France, especially Paris, began in the mid-I890s, when he and some of his fellow Philadelphia artists traveled with Henri to the Gallic capital as well as to Brussels and Amsterdam. Glackens was so mesmerized by Manet, Velazquez, and Hals that he adopted their somber palette and bravura brushwork.

Then, in I898, Glackens was dispatched first to Tampa, then to Cuba to cover the Spanish-American War for McClure's Magazine, with which he had established a relationship as an illustrator the year before. When the war ended abruptly, Glackens traded Philadelphia for Manhattan and continued his parallel careers, working as an illustrator until 1919 in order to continue his development as a painter.

In 1904 Glackens married Edith Dimock, and within a year the happily wed artist began emerging from his dark period. His palette became more luminous, his themes less sordid. Following a belated honeymoon in southern Spain, London, and Paris in 1906, the couple returned home, with Glackens Invigorated after experiencing Matisse and the fauves ("wild beasts").

In the decade to come Glackens reached his artistic apex. He participated in the enormously popular and controversial The Eight exhibition with Luks, Maurice Prendergast, John Sloan, and others, in 1905. In 1912, Glackens was sent on an expedition to Paris to purchase art for Dr. Albert Barnes, a former high school classmate who was to become one of the country's foremost collectors of modem art. And a year later, Glackens helped organize the American entries for the historic Armory Show in New York the international event that brought Picasso, Matisse, and Duchamp to prominence in the United States.

Glackens's artistic infatuation with Pierre-Auguste Renoir also began around this time. From the French master he permanently adopted elements that came to be Glackens hallmarks such as sentimental compositions, radiant colors, and feathery brushwork. His affinity for his Idol was such that it earned him the dubious nickname of "America's Renoir".

The Museum of Art I Fort Lauderdale's The spectacle of Life: The Art of William Glackens is a mixed-media retrospective featuring more than 40 works that span the artist's entire career. The exhibition includes some of his major oil paintings, along with full-scale drawings, sketch notebooks, and memorabilia.


About the Author

Jorge H. Santis was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1947. At age 16, he came to the United States and settled in New York City for the next 14 years. He graduated twice from Hunter College, earning both a Bachelors of the Arts and Masters of the Arts in Art History. In 1977 Mr. Santis moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, soon after, became a staff member of the Museum of Art - Fort Lauderdale. During his 25-year tenure at the Museum, he has held several different positions including Registrar, Assistant Curator, and for the past 14 years, Curator of Collections.

Among Mr. Santis' professional highlights are co-authoring the monographs William Glackens with Dr. William Gerdts, and Breaking Barriers with Dr. Carol Damian. So far, his greatest achievement has been the creation of the largest and most comprehensive collection of Contemporary Cuban art outside of the island. Among Mr. Santis' curated exhibitions the most successful have been: Breaking Barriers, Contemporary Cuban Photography: A Panoramic View, The Danes of CoBrA, William Glackens: The Portrait and Figure Painter, and Central American Visionaries.

Mr. Santis is Curator at the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale.



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Resource Library editor's note:

The above texts wee reprinted in Resource Library on July 22, 2009 with permission of the Museum of Art - Fort Lauderdale, which was granted to TFAO on July 22, 2009.

The Spectacle of Life: The Art of William Glackens is an ongoing exhibition. at the Museum.

When Ira Glackens, son of American impressionist William Glackens, died in 1991, he left his substantial collection of works by his father to the Museum of Art - Fort Lauderdale.

The original donation included more than two hundred works in a variety of media, later supplemented by another 300 works given by the Sansom Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by Ira and Nancy Glackens in the 1950s to oversee their art interests.

The Glackens Collection ranges from the artist's earliest known painting (Philadelphia Landscape, from 1893) to his last completed canvas (White Rose and Other Flowers, from 1937). The collection also includes works by such contemporaries of William Glackens as Maurice Prendergast, Ernest Lawson, and John Sloan.

In 2001, the Museum opened a 10,000-square-foot wing that is home to the collection, made possible by the Sansom Foundation, and the State of Florida, Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs, Florida Arts Council.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Carrie Peterson and Jorge H. Santis of the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.


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