Born in Philadelphia, William Glackens attended Central High School with John Sloan and Albert C. Barnes. At school William and his older brother Louis were known for their comic drawings, and Sloan recalled: “I have known no one born with more natural ability to express himself graphically.” After graduation Glackens went to work as a newspaper illustrator, first at the Philadelphia Record and eventually at the Philadelphia Press, a newspaper distinguished by its excellent illustrations. Possessed of an extraordinary visual memory, Glackens excelled as an artist-reporter, drawing newsworthy events alongside other talented young illustrators, including Sloan, Everett Shinn, and George Luks. Glackens also attended evening classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and began painting with encouragement from the painter Robert Henri, traveling with Henri to Paris in 1895.
When he returned, Glackens settled in New York and worked briefly for the Sunday World and then the Sunday Herald, but artist-reporter jobs were disappearing as the half-tone process allowed newspapers to reproduce photographs mechanically, without the intervention of illustrators. He began seeking commissions for magazine and book illustrations. In 1898, McClure’s magazine sent Glackens to cover the Spanish-American War in Cuba, but because the war was so short-lived, only a few of his images were published. One of his most dynamic drawings, a view of the charge up San Juan Hill, appeared alongside Stephen Bonsal’s description of the decisive battle in McClure’s, and other images accompanied an essay by Stephen Crane.
Back in the city, Glackens easily found work illustrating books and magazines. The turn of the century was a time of explosive growth in the illustrated press. In 1899, Glackens illustrated 24 magazine articles for a total of 121 published illustrations, and he began to receive attention in the press as an up-and-coming illustrator. Writing on “the new leaders in American illustration,” Regina Armstrong praised Glackens for his “depiction of life in all its teeming naturalness, employing words like “truthfully,” “transcribe,” and “record” to describe his approach. She characterized him as a radical realist, who gave little thought to composition. His strength, she explained, was “in the expression of an idea.” Armstrong positioned Glackens as “somewhat of a revolutionist” in the illustration world.
Glackens’s style was a far cry from the established men—like Howard Pyle, Frederic Remington and Charles Dana Gibson—yet he easily placed work in highly circulated national magazines, including Scribner’s, Collier’s, McClure’s, and The Saturday Evening Post. Frequently, Glackens was sought out for scenes of contemporary life in New York. The city was a popular topic in national magazines at the turn of the century. Countless articles and stories provided voyeuristic descriptions of the city’s sites, from the tables at Delmonico’s to the street stalls of the Lower East Side. Around 1900, Glackens’s reportorial talents suited stories that promised readers access to the vaudeville theaters and immigrant markets of the metropolis.
In 1902 Glackens landed a commission to produce illustrations for a deluxe edition of novels by the French author Charles Paul de Kock (1793–1871). Over two years Glackens would produce 54 etchings and drawings for the de Kock series and encourage his associates Sloan, Shinn and Luks to join the project. Reviewers of the books praised the many drawings, bringing attention to the young illustrators. In the Evening SunGlackens was singled out for his ability to capture the writer’s subject and tone: “This power of entering into the ideas of the authors whose work he deals with is not the least notable of Mr. Glackens’s gifts as an illustrator, and is worth remarking in a time when illustrations that illustrate are almost as rare as decorations that decorate.”
By 1907, Glackens had developed a reputation as an illustrator of life in New York City and a distinctive style marked by short, deft strokes and areas of flat color. This style found its fullest expression in colorful, crowded, full-page drawings that served as covers or centerfolds for Collier’s Weekly. These drawings, which often appeared untethered to any story, presented bird’s eye views of familiar locales—Washington Square Park, Madison Square, the Lower East Side—populated with tiny figures engaged in myriad activities. These drawings highlight Glackens’s unique abilities as an illustrator and graphic artist. As his friend and colleague Everett Shinn observed, no one “could do a crowd quite like William Glackens.”
The incidents captured in these scenes were likely observed from life and recorded in Glackens’s sketchbooks. Throughout his career, Glackens drew constantly, filling dozens of sketchbooks with quickly drawn figures and architectural details. These sketchbooks served to inject vitality and accuracy into his finished graphic works. For sketching, Glackens used waxy carbon pencil, charcoal and chalk, which allowed him to capture mass and movement quickly.
In New York, his sketchbooks are filled with figure studies and architectural motifs. His figure sketches capture people on the move in the city,and although they cannot always be correlated to specific projects, these drawings allowed him to create convincing “types”—be they Fifth Avenue strollers or Lower-East-Side fruit vendors—in his finished works. Many of the architectural sketches are clearly related to specific illustrations. Glackens even sketched locales he knew well, like Washington Square Park (which was just outside his studio window), to work out compositions for paintings and illustrations. In combination with his artist-reporter’s memory, these sketches allowed Glackens to present a convincing evocation of place in his drawings for Collier’s. For armchair travelers across the country, Glackens presented a rich visual tour of New York, capturing the city through masterfully organized networks of vignettes.
Mirroring his work in illustration, Glackens painted images of urban life—including famous pictures of Café Mouquin and Hammerstein’s Roof Garden, and his masterpiece, The Shoppers, which depicts his wife and her friends inspecting the merchandise in an urban store. With his friends from Philadelphia, Glackens participated in the groundbreaking exhibition of the Eight at Macbeth Gallery in 1908. After 1910, Glackens concentrated on painting and produced fewer illustrations. He regularly traveled to Europe, and in 1912 he began to assist his friend Albert Barnes in assembling his collection of European modern art, including masterpieces by Cezanne, Matisse, and Renoir. Glackens served on the committee to select American art for the 1913 Armory Show and was selected as the first president of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917.
Heather Campbell Coyle
Curator of American Art, Delaware Art Museum
Contributor, William Glackens catalogue
(Barnes Foundation/Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale, 2014)