When the age of the illustrated magazine was reaching its end in America, William Glackens and similar artists found themselves at a loss. Born March 13, 1870, Glackens joined the group of artists known as The Ashcan School or The Eight that met and centered around Robert Henri. Like Henri and John Sloan, Glackens moved to New York City in search of work and material. Almost as a swan song of the age of illustration, McClure’s Magazine sent Glackens to cover the Spanish-American War in 1898, when he drew Loading Horses on the Transports at Port Tampa (above, from 1898). (Could that actually be Teddy Roosevelt directing proceedings in the lower right corner?) Unlike Frederic Remington, who mythologized the war in the service of those stage managing it, Glackens casts a clear, realistic eye on the day to day activities of the troops, presaging the yen for realism he would soon bring back to New York City.
Just before leaving to cover the war, Glackens had returned from a trip to Paris with Henri to see the latest art movements there. Glackens found himself enthralled by the paintings of Manet, which brought a new kind of realism to French art. Glackens took the Zola–inspired realism of Manet and brought it back to America and the Ashcan School, which is, ironically, considered by many to be the quintessential “American” school of art. Glackens’ Chez Mouquin (above, from 1905) shows wealthy New Yorkers enjoying a night on the town, but they could easily be figures from the cafes of Paris as painted by Manet. If you saw these people reflected in the mirror of A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, you wouldn’t even look twice. It seems fitting, however, that Glackens used the art of Paris to depict the life of New York City, just then beginning to become the great world city we now know it as.
Glackens’ Francophilia grew stronger and stronger, eventually expressing itself in a choppy style of painting with vibrant colors that approached Impressionism. March Day—Washington Square (above, from 1912) leaves the polish of Manet behind for the atmospheric effects of Pierre Auguste Renoir, who supplants Manet in Glackens’ heart. The Ashcan School is justifiably associated with the dark streets and alleys of New York, but Glackens brings that group out into the fresh air with a flair that is downright French. Glackens shared his love of Renoir with his old schoolmate Dr. Albert C. Barnes, purchasing works for Barnes before the good doctor began purchasing on his own, finally amassing the collection that became The Barnes Foundation. In the middle of Dr. Barnes’ grand collection of Renoir, Matisse, and others, the room dedicated to the work of William Glackens seems a strange home for an Ashcan artist until you allow yourself to look closely and realize the family resemblance.