The Ashcan School: William Glackens and the Contemplation of Joy

4 Feb

William Glackens, Italo-American Celebration, Washington Square (1912)

William Glackens, March Day, Washington Park (date unknown)

William James Glackens (1870- 1938) is yet another American artist trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (can you tell I love that place?) and remains one of the best known of the Ashcan School of painters (also called “The Eight”) — a group of realist painters who in 1908 organized an independent exhibition of their work in defiance of the National Academy of Design’s rather rigid views about beauty in art.

William Glackens (date unknown)

At the Pennsylvania Academy Glackens studied under Thomas Anshutz and was a classmate of John French Sloan.  Sloan and Glackens became friends and Sloan introduced Glackens to Robert Henri.  In 1895, Glackens, Sloan and Henri traveled to Europe to study the Dutch Masters and to paint.  The Impressionists greatly influenced Glackens and would give direction to his artistic career upon his return to the United States the following year.

William Glackens, The Shoppers (1907)

William Glackens, Chez Mouquin (1905)

William Glackens, Hammerstein’s Roof Garden (1901)

Ashcan School artists, such as Glackens, have in common an aggressive realism that finds beauty even in the conventionally ugly. “Ashcan School” was originally intended as a term of derision and some of the members of the School, most notably John French Sloan, despised it.  Personally, I like the moniker because it neatly summarizes what made these artists great. Their 1908 show was well received and went on tour under the management of Sloan.  Glackens’s two most prominent paintings in the 1908 show were The Shoppers and Chez Mouquin (both above).  Most of the Ashcan School artists also participated in the Exhibition of Independent Artists in 1910, a further attempt to break down the exclusivity of the National Academy.

William Glackens, Skating in Central Park (c. 1910)

William Glackens, May Day, Central Park (c. 1905)

William Glackens, Fruit Stand, Coney Island (date unknown)

Like a number of other Ashcan School artists Glackens was a newspaper and magazine illustrator before becoming a painter.  In many of his genre paintings he continued in the manner of illustration (Sloan did likewise), emphasizing communal relationships and action.  Yet Glackens’s landscapes, especially his late ones, are strongly Impressionistic.   Most critics see the influence of Renoir in Glackens’s later work, and I would have to agree — have a look at Bathing at Bellport, Long IslandNew Hampshire Field; Connecticut Landscape; Portsmouth Harbor, New Hampshire; and particularly Cafe Lafayette, Portrait of Kay Laurel (all below), and see if you don’t agree.

William Glackens, Bathing at Bellport, Long Island (date unknown)

William Glackens, New Hampshire Field (date unknown)

William Glackens, Connecticut Landscape (date unknown)

William Glackens, Cafe Lafayette, Portrait of Kay Laurel (date unknown)

William Glackens, Portsmouth Harbor, New Hampshire (1909)

Much like Everett Shinn, Glackens’s work is frequently imbued with levity and good humor.  He did not subscribe to the idea that realism must of necessity be dour and depressing: happiness is real too, and Glackens was glad to depict it.  There’s a joyful buoyancy to his work that is very appealing without feeling contrived.  Art critic Forbes Watson said of Glackens that his paintings are “haunted by the spectre of happiness, obsessed with the contemplation of joy.”  I couldn’t agree more.

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