A genial trend setter
"At the Beach" is a happy scene painted by a happy painter. William Glackens was one of those fortunate individuals who early become absorbed in an art, work steadily at it all their lives and to whom this absorption means more than any attendant fame, fortune or critical vicissitudes.
Although a shy man and reticent about the theories of his art, he was a very congenial one and an important member of the group called The Eight, the others being Sloan, Henri, Luks, Shinn, Lawson, M. Prendergast and Davies. They remained friends throughout their lives and while their work was by no means alike, they all were attracted to everyday scenes of everyday people. In the first decade of this century such paintings were academically and critically unacceptable in the art circles of the United States centered in New York city.
Glackens' son, Ira, in a warm and personal biography, wrote in 1957, "In these days when almost anyone can find a place to show his work, no matter what, it is difficult to realize conditions in the early years of the century. There were then few art galleries . . . and these few usually were not interrested in showing the work of rising painters. . . . The only way for an artist to have his work displayed at all was in the large annual and semiannual exhibitions held by the National Academy. The Society of American Artists and similar organizations in a few otehr cities. The alternative was oblivion."
The Eight had no taste for oblivion. So, early in 1908, they held an independent show which proved a sensation. Ira Glacken notes, "It was the subjects of these paintings that shocked and astonished." But according to him. The term "the Ashcan School" did not come into general use until the mid-'30s and "the expression was then used in an affectionate sense rather than a derogatory one." Since the title of his book is "William glackens and the ashcan Group," it would seem that his father and friends were only amused by the epithet.
Public bathing beaches with ordinary people splashing awkwardly about was considered an "ashcanny" subject. They afforded Glackens the opportunity to fill a canvas with the color and motion that delighted him. In the same memoir, Ira reveals that his father followed the tradition of the old masters of putting self-portraits and those of the family into their paintings. although this one is not specifically referred to, we notice that only two of the many figures have their faces partly toward us: the long-haired woman seated on the rock and the inconspicuous figure of a man with arms raised in the left-hand corner of the canvas. The woman is recognizable from his portraits of her as his wife, Edith, herself a witty watercolorist. The man, humurously painted as sunburned lobster-red, bears resemblance to the artist.
Unlike his many other beach scenes, this one is painted as from the water looking to the beach. It is a colorful and chaotic scene with the flashing bright pink highlights on the bathers' arms conveying the animation and motion. The coloring is somewhat curious as the foreground of greenish water and the background of dull orange roofs against a subdued blue sky (as if the sun were hidden by a cloud) form two darker bands on either side of the lighter sands.
The Newark Museum which, under its brilliant and progressive founder, John Cotton Dana, acquired works of The Eight when other museums still held themselves aloof from native American art, notes on its caption that "In this work, Glackens has gone on to his later Renoiresque impressionism." The dashing brushstrokes, casual handling of the figures and high-key palette do suggest impressionism. However, art critic Forbes Watson wrote, "Glackens took Renoir just as he took the bathers playing pranks on the beach, or the flowers in the field. Renoir for him is part of the beauty of the world. . . . But Glackens is strictly American. . . . Look at the beach scenes herewith reproduced. It's hard to say why exactly they appear so American, and of course it is not merely the scene itself. The subject is seen through American eyes."
The second half of that evaluation seems to sum up not only Glackens' own contribution but the collective contribution of The Eight. Content to identify themselves as a part of the common American scene of the early 20th-century, they translated that scene into an art of intrinsic and lasting value. It was on their self-confidence, even when not on their style, that subsequent American art trends were established.And this would probably satisfy the equable William Glackens.