If you were a working artist in this country a hundred years ago, the centre of the world was the Northeast. It consisted basically of a strip of jagged eastern coastline salted with wealth running from Boston, south through Newport, Rhode Island, to the Mecca of American art, New York City, on south to its rival, Philadelphia, from there to the political capital, Washington, D.C., and just beyond that the gentrified horse country of eastern Virginia. If you were a top-of-the-line working artist around 1900, this is where you likely made your living. In New York at the turn of the century, the Ashcan School, regally presided over Robert Henri, the leader of the so-called Group of Eight, dominated the art scene. They were a hard-bitten, rough-hewn gang of former newspaper illustrators painting as much with machismo as pigments. Among them were Henri, John Sloan, Everett Shinn, George Luks, Ernest Lawson, and George Bellows.
Also members of the group, though in no way typical of the Ashcan School in terms of subject matter, were Maurice Prendergast and William Glackens. There were to be no meat markets, neighbourhood bars, tenement back yards, or stray cats for these two. Glackens was a protege of Robert Henri, who took him to Paris to learn to paint. And although Glackens never enrolled in any kind of formal classes there, he brought back with him a feeling for Impressionism and the gay life of Parisian society. In New York, he found such a demand for the same Victorian sophistication, or at least an imitation of it, that he was able to quit his day job at the newspaper and devote himself to painting the flip-side of the grungy urban world his Ashcan colleagues depicted. His 1905 painting, Chez Monquin is an excellent example.
The painting brings to mind the impressionists to be sure, but more than that, there is also the ghost of Edouard Manet still breathing in its background, particularly his Bar at the Folies-Bergere. Like Manet's final masterpiece, there is a mirror forming the backdrop for the scene and careful attention to the elegant still life decorating the table. However Manet's female presence was a simple bar maid. Not so with Glackens, who presents a society matron as elegantly attired as any Sargent or Whistler grand dame. Beside her is the powerful source of her station in life, probably her husband, imbibing of the liquor and the old-world elegance held over for an encore from the nineteenth century. It's not New York Ashcan, nor is it Parisian Cancan. It is thoroughly and exquisitely nouveau riche American.
contributed by Lane, Jim
19 August 1999