The timeframe in which William Glackens lived was anything but stable. He was born on the swell of the second industrial revolution, was in his adult years during the First World War and died towards the end of the Great Depression. As a career artist, it only seems natural that Glackens would reflect the stark difference each era brought – and he did, but not in the way everyone would think. Even though his stylistic preferences changed, he had a constant presence in the world of fine art, his family, and his circle of friends and colleagues.
Glackens reaped success with three different art styles: illustration, realism and impressionism. His career began in 1891 as an illustrative reporter for Philadelphia newspapers. Eventually, he went to Cuba with the U.S. Army to capture the events of the Spanish-American war. In this span of 7 years, he would travel to Europe, settle in New York and meet the group of men who would play significant roles in his development as an artist.
“The Eight” was a popular name for the artist clique that Glackens was part of. Led by Robert Henri, The Eight was an organic collection of artists that grew from a casual art community. At start, these broad gatherings hosted artists who would socialize, showcase, and critique one another’s artwork. The title of “The Eight” wasn’t given until later, in 1908, when eight artists, including Henri and Glackens, joined together to display art that was not yet accepted by mainstream society.
Under Henri’s guidance, this group developed into the Ashcan School of American Art. Glackens is considered one of the founders of this movement. He also earned the title of an “Aschan realist.” Different from popular work of the time, this collection of artists “favored cheerful subjects of leisure activities over the dark manner and social realism of others….”
In 1904, Glackens personal life flourished too. He married a woman from Connecticut named Edith Dimock. Together, they raised two children in their home in Greenwich Village. Glackens relationship with his family, like his relationship with art, was considered abnormal for bohemian artists of the day, as he was greatly devoted to them. More so, his commitment to his family mirrors his commitment to art; he always remained true to his passions, even as they changed with time.
Shortly after beginning his family, Glackens began adopting stylistic markings that differed from those of the Aschan movement. He started shifting towards mainstream impressionism and incorporating lively colors into his artwork. After moving from using dark-hues for some time, he opened himself to a world of color. According to an admirer of his work, Forbes Watson, this was exactly where Glackens was meant to be. Watson said of his friend, “the color of the world makes him thoroughly happy and to express that happiness in color has become his first and most natural impulse.”
Some would even refer to Glackens as the “American Renoir.” Even though this title bucked against the realist style he strived for when displaying art alongside “The Eight,” he didn’t mind being given the nickname of the French impressionist painter. He is quoted as saying, “Can you think of a better man to follow than Renoir?”
As Glackens artistic style matured, so did his career. In 1916, he became the president of the Society of Independent artists. He also received awards from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Even as the next generation of artists began to pursue art forms that were abstract and politically charged, his “old-fashioned” artwork continued to offer him stability in life.
On May 22, 1938, Glackens passed away. His death at the age of 68 was sudden. His memory was honored by friends and fans who gathered at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Carnegie Institute of Pittsburgh.
The legacy William Glackens lives on today. He has a strong presence in the Aschan School. In addition, he will always be remembered as one of “The Eight.” Even when his style transformed and strayed from the style of the group, he remained true to his friends, his family and to his calling to art.
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