A talented and progressive-minded painter, William Glackens played a notable role in American art of the early 20th century. Affiliated with New York’s Ashcan School during the early 1900s, he initially focused his attention on portraying daily life in the urban metropolis, working in a realist manner characterized by painterly brushwork and a low-keyed monochromatic palette. However, by 1910, the independent-minded Glackens had abandoned that approach. While retaining his interest in everyday subjects, he applied his brush to joyous paintings that reflected his new concern for expressive color. Any discussion of Glackens must take into consideration his drawings too; indeed, his friend and fellow artist Everett Shinn was of the opinion that Glackens was “the greatest draughtsman this country has produced. I know of no other American artist who has equaled his extraordinary ability as an interpreter of contemporary life.”
The son of a railway employee, Glackens began his career as an illustrator in his native Philadelphia, joining the Philadelphia Record in 1891 and later working for the Philadelphia Press, where he met and became friendly with George Luks, John Sloan, and Shinn. As a result of his newspaper work––which required that he make factual, on-the-spot sketches of people and events––Glackens developed a perceptive sense of observation and a rapid technique that remained vital aspects of his aesthetic approach for the remainder of his career.
Through his connection with Sloan, Glackens was introduced to Robert Henri (then teaching at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women), whose “art for life’s sake” philosophy and belief that artists should paint their immediate environment stimulated his desire to become a painter. So inspired, Glackens spent his evenings studying painting under Thomas Anshutz, Robert Vonnoh, and others at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. This was followed, in June 1895, by an extended trip to Paris, during which time Glackens concentrated on painting and familiarized himself with the work of artists such as Edouard Manet, James McNeill Whistler, and Renoir. Along with Henri and Elmer Schofield, he also visited Belgium and Holland, where he studied the work of Dutch masters such as Frans Hals and Rembrandt. Working out of his Montparnasse studio, Glackens went on to paint images of Parisians in cafés, dance halls, and parks, gaining his earliest recognition in the art world when one such work, Au jardin du Luxembourg (probably In the Luxembourg, 1896; Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale, Florida), was shown at the annual exhibition of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
Glackens returned to Philadelphia in the autumn of 1896. Two months later, he moved to New York, where he quickly made his mark as an artist-reporter for the New York Herald and the Sunday World. Glackens was also engaged as an illustrator for leading mass-market periodicals, such as Scribner’s, Putnam’s Monthly, and the Saturday Evening Post, as well as McClure’s Magazine, for which he drew a series of critically acclaimed images of the Spanish-American War.
During his early years in New York, Glackens painted in his spare time. It was during this period that he created some of his earliest beach scenes, a subject, explored in oils such as The Fruit Stand, Coney Island (circa 1898; Nova Southeastern University Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale, Florida) that would occupy his attention for the remainder of his career. Following his marriage in 1904 to Edith Dimock (1876–1955), an artist and the daughter of an affluent silk manufacturer from West Hartford, Connecticut, Glackens achieved a level of financial security that allowed him to spend more of his time at his easel, where he created such noted works as At Mouquin’s (1905; Art Institute of Chicago), a portrayal of stylish New Yorkers at a well-known restaurant.
In February of 1908, Glackens, along with Henri, Shinn, Sloan, Luks, Arthur B. Davies, Ernest Lawson, and Maurice Prendergast, participated in the legendary exhibition of The Eight, held at the Macbeth Gallery in New York. Shortly thereafter, Glackens moved away from Ashcan realism and adopted the high-keyed palette and feathery brushwork associated with the later work of Renoir. His impressionist canvases also reveal his awareness of the work of avant-garde French artists such as the Fauvist Henri Matisse and the Nabis painter Pierre Bonnard, both of whom embraced the use of decorative, non-naturalistic color. In the ensuing years, Glackens applied this precept to studio subjects such as nudes and floral still lifes, as well as the sunlit beach scenes he painted in littoral locales in Massachusetts, Nova Scotia, and Bellport, Long Island.
A staunch advocate for his fellow artists, Glackens helped organize and participated in the Exhibition of Independent Artists in 1910, the first non-juried, no-prize exhibition held in the United States. He also served on the Committee on Domestic Exhibits for the groundbreaking Armory Show (International Exhibition of Modern Art) in 1913. Glackens likewise helped introduce vanguard European art to American audiences through his activity as an art advisor: on a trip to Paris in 1912, he acquired representative examples of paintings by artists such as Renoir, Vincent van Gogh, and Paul Cézanne on behalf of the collector, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, a good friend and former schoolmate. An avid Francophile, Glackens continued to visit France throughout the 1920s and 1930s, spending time in Paris and in southern locales such as Le Suquet. He also made visits to Vermont, Québec, Maine, New Hampshire, and Florida. An artist who led a peripatetic lifestyle that revolved around work and family, Glackens remained as prolific as ever until his death on May 22, 1938, in Westport, Connecticut.