William Glackens is primarily remembered today as an Ashcan School painter, affiliated with the group of American realists centered in New York City, friends and students of the dynamic artist and teacher, Robert Henri. At the turn of the 20th century and into its early decades, these men painted impressionist-inspired scenes of New York’s streets, parks, and waterfront, pictures whose dark tonalities and unconventional subject matter upset the conservative American art establishment. Glackens’s name also summons memories of “The Eight,” the group of eight insurgent artists whose members included Robert Henri, John Sloan, George Luks, Everett Shinn, Maurice Prendergast, Ernest Lawson, Arthur B. Davies and Glackens, men who challenged the exhibition hegemony of the National Academy of Design in a landmark show at the Macbeth Galleries in New York in 1908. William Glackens’s life in art, however, accommodates no easy generalization. He was versatile and multi-talented, a consummate draftsman as well as a devoted colorist. He moved, in the course of his career, from newspaper illustration, to a Manet-inspired series of cityscapes and figure paintings, and then to figural paintings and leisure-time landscapes in a lighter palette incorporating influences from Renoir, Henri Matisse, and Edouard Vuillard.
Glackens was born in Philadelphia and attended Central High School two generations after William Trost Richards, and one generation after Thomas Eakins. He was a classmate of John Sloan, another lifelong friend. Glackens’ dab hand at illustration was already evident in high school. After graduating in 1889, he found ready work with Philadelphia newspapers, moving around from one paper to another, and mastering the trade of artist-illustrator. Philadelphia, in the early 1890s, was an exciting place to be a young artist. Glackens fell in with a group of young men who worked as journalists to support themselves, and studied evenings at the renowned art school of The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The group, which included George Luks, John Sloan, and Everett Shinn, was loosely organized around the charismatic figure of Robert Henri, who, while never a journalist himself, prized the skills of acute observation and quick reaction that the journalist-illustrators brought to their practice of fine art.
From 1889, when he commenced work as a journalist, until 1919, when he turned exclusively to fine art, William Glackens built a career as one of America’s leading illustrators, expanding from newspaper work to magazine and book illustration. Glackens had a legendarily retentive memory for visual images, producing illustrations that were, at the same time, witty, incisive, and compassionate. He gained a reputation among his colleagues as the consummate master of the urban crowd scene.
Throughout his artistic career, Glackens adapted French stylistic strategies to suit his own concerns. He first went to Europe in 1895, together with Robert Henri, visiting Paris, and bicycling through Northern France, Belgium, and Holland. Partly as a result of direct experience, partly through the contagious enthusiasms of Henri, Glackens’s early work reflects an amalgam of influences, including Edouard Manet, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and Diego Velázquez, as well as Rembrandt and Frans Hals.
By 1910, Glackens’s palette had brightened considerably, and from this point on, Glackens was increasingly seen as an American painter influenced by Renoir. While this is an oversimplification, Glackens was without question a Francophile. After his first trip to France with Robert Henri, he returned there on a belated honeymoon in 1906, and again, in 1912.