Glackens and Whistler: A young man's attraction

When citing the formative influences on the American artist William Glackens, we tend to round up the usual suspects: Diego Velázquez, Frans Hals, Édouard Manet, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. It is true that all of these painters, as well as Edgar Degas, Théophile Steinlen, Claude Monet, and Henri Matisse, evoked Glackens's admiration, and he firmly believed that Americans who wished to be contemporary had to learn from the French.1 But for the first decade of his artistic life, Glackens was also engaged by the art of James McNeill Whis­tler, the expatriate American painter and printmaker whose aesthetic credo and flamboyant example shaped the thinking of several generations of artists and crit­ics on both sides of the Atlantic. Glackens's early emulation of Whistler's subject matter and techniques aided him in realizing his own means of expression. He accepted Whistler as a natural ideal for young artists to follow. His dark palette, Glackens observed in 1913, "has proved particularly attractive to students, to the young painters, perhaps because it is a veil behind which to hide inefficient drawing, or because it makes good drawing easier."2

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Glackens studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1891 to 1894. The academy held important loan and annual exhibitions that gave students not only op­portunity to show their own work, but also to see contemporary art from other parts of the country firsthand. To support himself Glackens had a job as an artist-reporter for the Philadelphia Record, but the academy's records show that he began his study there on November 12, 1891, and attended steadily throughout 1894. He was at the academy at one time or another with John Sloan, James Preston, Maxfield Parrish, Frederic W. Gruger, and Everett Shinn. Shinn observed that the academy "served as a kind of a club" for him and his friends, who went around the galler­ies together and studied the work of the English il­lustrators Charles Keene, George du Maurier, John Leech, and Philip May.3

In 1892 Glackens quit the Record to move to the Philadelphia Press, the city's leading newspaper. Sloan and Shinn were staff artists at the Press, as was George Luks. The artists made a living and thrived on the life, but none thought much about larger ambitions. That changed in December 1892 when Robert Henri befriended them and urged them to become painters. Henri held a weekly open house in his Philadelphia studio, where he talked about his heroes-Velázquez, Hals, and Goya, and two of their most provocative contemporary exponents-Manet and Whistler.

Glackens's first known painting-Philadelphia Landscape (Fig. 3)-is a record not only of some nondescript buildings and the bare trees sur­rounding them on a late fall or winter day, but of the atmosphere of a particular moment. Factual and pur­posely unpicturesque, the canvas follows Henri's dictum of finding the art in everyday life. Its tonalist palette also suggests the beginning of Glackens's involvement with Whistler, whose paintings and prints, unlike Manet's, were frequently exhibited in Philadelphia.

By the 1890s Whistler was a celebrity, equally known for the controversies he fanned as for the radical work he created. His artistic reputation was at its height in 1891, when the French nation bought the iconic Ar­rangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Artist's Mother (1871), and Whistler was especially appreciated at the Pennsylvania Academy. The portrait of his mother was exhibited there for the first time in the United States in 1881, and three years later the academy hosted a traveling exhibition of fifty-two works. Works by Whistler were included in every academy annual but one between 1893 and 1907,4 and the 1893 annual boasted a particularly strong showing. Whistler, along with Eakins, Robert Vonnoh, Winslow Homer, George Inness, Eastman Johnson, John Singer Sargent, and William Merritt Chase, were among the elect Americans invited to show more than the standard one to three works at the World's Colum­bian Exposition, the mammoth fair held in Chicago from May through October 1893.5 Ninety-four paint­ings from the fair traveled to the next academy an­nual, which ran from December 1893 to February 1894 (see Fig. 4). Five of the oils were by Whistler: La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine (The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, 1863-1864); Nocturne in Blue and Gold-Valparaiso (1866/c. 1874); Arrangement in Black: La Dame au brodequin-jaune-Portrait of Lady Archibald Campbell (The Yellow Buskin) (Fig. 5); Arrangement in Black and Brown: The Fur Jacket (1876); and The Chelsea Girl (1884). Whistler's paintings, along with Sargent's portrait of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, attracted the most attention among the public and the students.6 In 1894 the academy students organized their first show of caricatures that burlesqued paintings in the con­comitant annuals. Glackens received an honorable mention for Jimmie, his parody of The Chelsea Girl.

The caricature show was by no means the only send-up of Whistler by Glackens's crowd. In 1894 George du Maurier, whose cartoons in Punch Glackens had studied in concert with illustrations by John Leech and Phil May, published Trilby, a gothic novel based on the author's bohemian youth in Paris. In the book the art students are besotted with Trilby O'Ferrall, a pretty model in the clutches of a sinister mentor named Svengali, but another memorable character was a lazy, foppish American student immediately recognizable as Whistler. Trilby was an im­mediate best seller, and a must-read for art students of the nineties, especially in Philadelphia, where several ministers condemned the story for immorality. On December 29, 1894, Twillbe, a melodrama satirizing the novel, was staged at the Pennsylvania Academy. Sloan, in drag, was Twillbe. Svengali, who had unearthly power over Twillbe, was played by Henri, and Shinn was "James McNails Whiskers-with a chip on his shoulder." Glackens was "Gecko-A Fiddling Genius in love with Twillbe."7 The Philadelphia Inquirer gave the play a splendid review, and it was repeated by popular demand.

At the academy annual, Glackens had exam­ined Whistler's portraits and treatment of the figure, and he knew Whistler's images of women in white. The formal challenge of orchestrat­ing various shades of white upon white would have been discussed with Henri, and in painting Girl in White (Fig. 7), a languid female figure, Glackens further introduces such Whistlerian touches as the fan and the spray of blossoms in a bowl. (The latter was the first known inclusion of a still-life in his work).

Glackens and Henri visited New York on March 31, 1894, and Whistler was a topic of conversation. They went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to a one-person show of Arthur B. Davies, and to the National Academy of Design's and Society of American Artists members' exhibitions. They were impressed by Davies, but the Society of American Artists's show was "light." Of the academicians, Henri said, "Oh so many miserable old fogys! Out with the Academy! Down with the school-they kill art.... Many painters, many pictures, few artists and few works of art. Vive the Japanese, Whistler, Chevannes [sic], Besnar [sic]." At the Metropolitan, Henri praised the Tanagra figurines, as well as the Rembrandts, Halses, van Dycks, and Manet's Boy with a Sword (1861) and Woman with a Parrot (1866).8 Glackens returned to the museum in November 1894. He repeated his admiration of Boy with a Sword, linked it to Velázquez, and then said that both Manets had a family resemblance to Whistler's Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1862), which was then on loan to the Metropolitan Museum and also ex­cited his praise. "The intention of both men is iden­tical, and their theory of drawing the same," he wrote to a friend. "We gloated over all three pictures all afternoon, and we came back the next day and gloated over them until it grew dark, and then we went back to Philadelphia."9

In the spring of 1894 Sloan volunteered to teach Glackens about etching, the art form more identi­fied with Whistler than with any other artist of the period.10 The two drew the boats on the Schuylkill River, just as Whistler had made use of the Thames in his riverside etchings of the early 1860s. Glack­ens etched a dockside scene of outbuildings, and included a full-masted schooner and several other sailboats against a foreground of a widening river flowing toward the viewer. However, his image was printed in relief: all the broad areas are black and only the lines are white (Fig. 10). Glackens did not become the dedicated printmaker that Sloan was, but he did try his hand at etchings throughout the 1890s, and several remained recognizably Whist­lerian in subject or mood.

In June 1895 Glackens, Henri, and several other Philadelphia artists sailed for France. On June 11 Henri wrote to his parents from Paris, "We have nearly killed ourselves regularly every day in our efforts to see the Salons before they close....There are many good things and hundreds and thousands of bad. There is lots of room at the top in art....Glackens thinks Paris a wonderful place."11

Glackens explored what he noticed was unique to Paris-its broad boulevards, its parks, and a freer life conducted in its great public spaces. He also haunted the Louvre-it was "a wonderful gallery," he wrote. "There is no need of any other school."12 At the Luxembourg, the only paintings he "cared to see" were "Whistler's mother, Sargent's Carmencita, Manet's Olympia, and Chavannes Poor Fisherman."13 Glackens's aesthetic stance was a compound of what he had seen in the museums and the tenets of Manet, Whistler, and the impressionists: "the old masters were the only ones who really knew how to draw-and...they drew flat-...high lights are vulgar, and... when one goes boldly and directly to express an idea he is at once assailed as clumsy."14

La Villette (Fig. 1), one of Glackens's most im­portant Paris paintings, has a softly brushed qual­ity that evokes a watercolor, and it shows that he had not stopped experimenting with Whistler's methods. (In 1899 Glackens stated that Whistler and Manet were "the great artists of this century."15) Featuring a high arched footbridge with a parade of dark silhouetted figures below it, La Villette's composition is reminiscent of Whistler's Nocturne: Blue and Gold-Old Battersea Bridge (Fig. 2), which itself was inspired by the woodcuts of Hiroshige. Glackens also chose to portray the scene before him at twilight, Whistler's favorite time, when forms become indistinct. La Villette was an indus­trial neighborhood in northeastern Paris, where the unlovely reigned-the livestock markets and abattoirs were located there, and the water traffic was dense. Yet, like Whistler, Glackens could tease out unexpected beauty in banal urban areas, espe­cially when they were cloaked by fading light. Indeed, one famous passage from Whistler's Ten O'Clock lecture could describe La Villette: "And when the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and tall chimneys become campa­nili, and the warehouses are palaces in the night, and the whole city hangs in the heavens, and...the wayfarer hastens home."16

Glackens returned to Philadel­phia in October 1896, but before the year was out he had moved to Manhattan for a job at the New York World. He wrote to Henri about going back to Paris, because he was "not doing much,"17 but history intervened. On February 15, 1898, the American battleship Maine was blown up in the har­bor of Havana, Cuba, under mysterious circumstances. The explosion killed 266 American sailors on board, and the United States called for the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Cuba. When this demand was ignored, the United States declared war against Spain on April 25, and the theater of action expanded to include the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico.

The World's editors loudly in­cited popular support for the war, and the paper dispatched corre­spondents to report on the conflict in Cuba. McClure's magazine hired Glackens to illustrate the dis­patches of Stephen Bonsal, the veteran war correspondent whom the magazine had also engaged; in return, McClure's would pass on some of his extra drawings to the World.

Glackens left NewYork in early May and he was working by June. As reporter and wit­ness to several important battles, Glackens was most acclaimed for his crowd scenes and portrayals of the soldiers at war, but his focus was not exclusively military. In his image of ships idling in the Tampa harbor (Fig. 12), he again turns to Whistler's handling of shore, clouds, and water for inspiration (see Fig. 11). The illustration foreshadows a motif he would take up again in New York-the urban harbor and maritime bustle-as seen in Tugboat and Lighter (Fig. 13) and East River from Brooklyn (Fig. 15).

In April 1901 Glackens was in an exhibition with Henri, Sloan, Alfred Maurer, Ernest Fuhr, Van Dearing Perrine, and Willard Bertram Price.18 The show's one review was friendly; its author was Charles FitzGerald, the new art critic for the New York Evening Sun, who soon became a good friend of Glackens. In 1903 Glackens painted FitzGerald (Fig. 14), and the portrait constitutes one of the artist's last major meditations on Whistler.19 The somber palette of blacks, whites, and grays, the fluid paint handling, and the elegant, elongated, introspective figure melded with its soft, dark background are all hallmarks of a clas­sic Whistler portrait. Glackens, however, diverged from Whistler in introducing a very bright contrast between the whites of FitzGerald's brightly lit face and shirt collar and the blacks of his coat and vest. It is tempting to speculate that Portrait of Charles FitzGerald was painted in late 1903, in memory of Whistler, who had died that July. His passing was commemorated in every leading newspaper and art journal, and FitzGerald wrote a tribute for the Sun.

As Glackens matured, Whistler's influence waned, especially after he jettisoned his dark palette and low tonality for high-key color in 1908. But one last link remained. In 1925 Glackens, now a married man with two children, took his family to live in France. In the spring of 1929 the Glackenses rented a house at 110 rue du Bac. This building was Whistler's resi­dence from 1892 to 1894, when his paintings were shown in Chicago and at the Pennsylvania Academy and the young Glackens studied them in depth. In the intervening years, Glackens's ambitions had changed. The narrative observation that had served him so well in his early city scenes was redefined as optical empiricism. But like Whistler, he had become a transatlantic figure and, in the words of Peter John Brownlee, "a modernist by practice, technique, and peripatetic personality."20

The exhibition William Glackens is on view at Nova Southeastern University's Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale, February 23 to June 1; the Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, New York, July 20 to October 13; and the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, November 8 to Febru­ary 2, 2015. Portions of this article have been adapted from Avis Berman's essay in the accompanying catalogue, published by Skira Rizzoli and the Barnes Foundation.

 

1 W[illiam]. J. Glackens, "The American Section: The National Art," Arts and Decoration, vol. 3, no. 5 (March 1913), p. 159.  2 Ibid., p. 162.  3 Everett Shinn, "William Glackens as an Illustrator," American Artist, vol. 9 (November 1945), p. 22.  4 Sylvia Yount, "Whistler and Philadel­phia: A Question of Character," in Linda Merrill et al., After Whistler: The Artist and Influence on American Painting, (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2003), p. 57.  5 See Revisiting the White City: American Art at the 1893 World's Fair (National Museum of American Art and Na­tional Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., 1993) for a history of the mammoth art exhibition.  6 Yount, "Whistler and Philadelphia," p. 56.  7 Program, "Third Grand Christmas Effusion of the P.A.F.A. Students," December 29, 1894, box 31, John Sloan Archives, Delaware Art Mu­seum, Wilmington.  8 Entry for April 4, 1894, Robert Henri's journal, box 20, folder 471, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University (hereafter YCAL).  9 William Glackens to a Miss Smith, November 25 (1894), Kraushaar Galleries Archives, NewYork.  10 Entry for April 1894, Henri's journal.  11 Henri to Theresa Gatewood and Richard H. Lee, July 11, 1895, box 14, folder 347, YCAL.  12 Glackens to Miss Smith, September 7, 1895, Kraushaar Galleries Archives.  13 Ibid.  14 Quoted in Regina Armstrong, "Representative Young Illustrators," Art Interchange, vol. 93, no. 5 (No­vember 1899), p. 109.  15 Quoted in Regina Armstrong, "The New Leaders in American Illustration IV, The Typists: McCarter, Yohn, Gla­ckens, Shinn and Luks," Bookman, vol. 11 (May 1900), p. 247. See also Armstrong, "Representative Young Illustrators," p. 109.  16 James Mc­Neill Whistler, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (1890; reprint Dover Publications, New York, 1967), p.  144.  17 Henri to Theresa Gatewood and Richard H. Lee, November 15, 1897, box 14, folder 350, YCAL.  18 Bennard B. Perlman, Robert Henri: His Life and Art (Dover Publica­tions, New York, 1991), p. 47.  19 See also Lacey Taylor Jordan, cata­logue entry for Portrait of Charles FitzGerald in Merrill et al., After Whistler, p. 186.  20 Peter John Brownlee, "On a Perpetual Holiday: The Art of William Glackens after The Eight," in The Eight and American Mod­ernisms, ed. Elizabeth Kennedy (Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, 2009), p. 50.

AVIS BERMAN, an independent curator and art historian, is the cura­tor of the exhibition William Glackens, the first comprehensive survey of the artist's work in nearly fifty years. 

 

 

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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