Writer and art historian Avis Berman is the curator of The Barnes Foundation‘s latest exhibit, “William Glackens.” William Glackens was a Philadelphia-born painter and friend of art collector Albert C. Barnes. We asked Berman about Glackens as an artist, the exhibit, and its signature piece, Family Group (above).
How and when was Family Group made? William Glackens always painted his environment, especially the immediate world around him, and one of the reasons for Family Group is that its contours changed. He and his wife and son moved from a small apartment on Washington Square into a larger apartment on Lower Fifth Avenue in autumn of 1908. The parlour or living room was subsequently decorated with richly patterned rugs and furniture, and Glackens wanted to capture that riot of color and texture, illuminated by streaming sunlight, after the room took shape. It was clearly a challenge to incorporate four figures into that complex background, and he worked on it in 1910 and 1911. It is the largest canvas he ever painted, and one critic was amazed by its “power of organization” and “sustained effort.”
Who are the people featured in Family Group? The people in Family Group are Edith Dimock Glackens, the artist’s wife, who is standing with her arm on the chair; her sister, Irene Dimock, who is seated below her, Edith and William Glackens’s four-year-old son Ira, and, at the far right, an old friend of Edith’s named Grace Dwight Morgan.
How did the painting compare with its contemporaries? Family Group was certainly more advanced than the work Glackens’s original Philadelphia gang, headed by Robert Henri and John Sloan, were doing, although it was not as avant-garde as abstract and semi-abstract as some of the younger American artists in the circle of Alfred Stieglitz. But here Glackens charts his own path between. He’s moved beyond Impressionism and into territory pioneered by Henri Matisse—every surface is radiant, as Glackens begins to blur boundaries between background and foreground. And as with Matisse, light transforms and idealizes material things. Only a handful of American artists at that time were familiar enough with Matisse to experiment with his innovations, and it’s no surprise that one shocked reviewer called the canvas “a scream of color.”
What does the painting symbolize to you? Since the painting is titled Family Group, you might wonder why Grace Morgan, who is not a family member, is in it. Originally she was not included in the picture, but when Glackens saw her in the colorful red-and-white dress she had just bought at Paul Poiret in Paris—making the other women’s garb look comparatively frumpy—he changed the entire composition and palette to put her in. Morgan’s addition to the canvas symbolizes the necessity for progressive American artists to recognize and embrace contemporary currents in French art. Glackens had already assimilated the discoveries of the Impressionists, Cézanne, and the Fauves, and in 1913 he would publish an article proclaiming the importance and value of French art. In a sense, Family Group predicted these sentiments and made them sartorially concrete.
How does Family Group represent the exhibit as a whole? I wanted to talk about Family Group for several reasons. First, it is an expression of Glackens’s aesthetic credo, as I’ve talked about in the previous question. Second, it is critical to the history of the Barnes Foundation. Family Group, along with other paintings similar in color and ambition, would have been in Glackens’s studio when Albert C. Barnes, who had gone to Central High School with Glackens, looked him up in late 1911 and renewed their friendship. From the canvases he saw, Barnes would have been secure that Glackens understood modern painting. He knew that the artist could be trusted to be his eyes in Paris when he sent him to France in February 1912 with $20,000.00 to buy modern French art for him. Glackens came back with 33 paintings and works on paper by, among others, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Paul Cézanne, and his purchases represent the genesis of the Barnes Foundation’s collection.
Family Group also represents the exhibition because it was in the epochal International Exhibition of Modern Art of 1913, known as the Armory Show. Glackens was an important advocate for the introduction of modern art in this country. He was in the thick of such landmark exhibitions as the Armory Show, as well as The Eight in 1908, the Independents Show in 1910, and this painting is connected to his role as a significant cultural figure in the struggle for the acceptance of avant-garde painting in America.