Art Thoughts, Week 6 – Glackens & Style

(Dear readers: apologies are due; this post is a week late, and the previous one still has no image. I had, admittedly, a great deal of trouble finding ANYTHING that looked vaguely like that painting...I'll put something up there, but if you want the real scoop, come see it at the Barnes. And since the post below is technically last week's, I'll be looking at and thinking about another painting towards the end of the week. Hey, it's only Wednesday!!)

Self-portrait (Portrait of the Artist), William James Glackens, American, 1870—1938, 1908, oil on canvas, BF 105.

How does a painting like this come about? Perhaps one afternoon Glackens arrived home; removed his hat and, liking the eccentricity of his hair, sat down in front of a mirror to do a self-portrait; arriving at a picture which would end up in the collection of his long-time friend, Dr. Albert Barnes. Regardless, Glackens as sitter has an extremely interesting loft to his hair in this painting, what my family would call a strubbelkopf, throwing Pennsylvania German phrases around as we do.

There are several things about this portrait which show Glackens’ hand, if you will – signature elements that turn up in much of his work. One is the radical shift in modeling styles that can be found, for example, in the area between his collar and his jowl. The collar follows the style of almost the entire painting – the background, his jacket, even his hair to some extent: extremely choppy and slathered, and at spots thickly knifed on. Immediately adjacent to this meaty paint is the softly toned, smooth, plastic surface of his neck; a world away from the tempestuous brushwork of most of the painting. It’s as if Leon Kosoff has suddenly begun painting over a color photograph. This is a contrast found in many of Glackens’ paintings which contributes to a fairly shallow focus in the painting, similar to the very shallow focus popular in magazine photography a few years back. His face is the only part of the painting that seems still, focused and deliberated over; the rest fuzzes into the background. (Of course, this is a bias; we know well enough that even the sloppiest paint can be deliberated over for hours.)

Another stylistic signpost is the juxtaposition of sharply contrasted reds and greens. This was a favorite practice of Glackens which can be seen, without exception as far as I know, in all of his portraits at the Barnes Foundation. Again, in the self-portrait’s colors, as in the contrasting surfaces, there is a definite minority/majority relationship. Deep alizarin, brick and umbers dominate; there are less blues, cadmium-type reds, and scant green. The greens, in fact, are relegated solely to the angles of his face (and an emerald dollop for a tie-pin) where they interact wonderfully with the roses and raspberries that are on opposing facets of the face. When seen from across the room, this contrast makes for a surprisingly-alive skin surface. In some of his portraits, Glackens played up the decorative differences in these colors, and there they seem more Fauve, but here it is for the sake of a purer realism.

The final element which could be pointed out as being a particular of Glackens – this time to his personality, not to continuity of his style, necessarily – is the marked differences between sides of his face. In this portrait, he is thirty-eight years old. While viewing the painting, I held a hand over the right side of the face: an impression of someone in the vigor of their early thirties was there…I then covered the left side, and immediately got the impression of a man ten or fifteen years older, disintegrating into the background. Did Glackens realize this possibly telling detail? Probably not; we don’t often give the artist the benefit of the doubt on these psychological issues: speaking as an artist, we don’t often consider these – or these particular – things. Critics have a way of placing a filter of themselves over an artwork, then having trouble seeing past it. The question does hang, though, and remains a good signifier for other particulars of Glackens' painting: he is nothing if not precociously aware.

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