Important Art by William Glackens
Hammerstein's Roof Garden captures a fashionable entertainment venue, immediately placing the viewer in a specific and contemporary urban space. Such roof gardens were popular spots during the summer, when theaters were often closed due to the stifling heat. Recently opened by theater legend Oscar Hammerstein in 1899, this locale, the Paradise Roof Garden, was a popular destination for the sort of spectacular which we see here.
Positioning the viewer as a member of the audience, we see a row of fashionably dressed women who watch a pair of tightrope walkers. The costumes of the acrobats provide a jolt of color in an otherwise muted tonal palette. With this limited scene, Glackens gives us a sense of the immense space of the theater, its popularity, its clientele and its performances. Providing respectable entertainment, the presence of unchaperoned young women points to the modernity of this scene (previously, such unescorted adventures would have been unthinkable), further emphasized by the recognizable architecture and real-life locale.
This particular painting was one of his earliest to earn public acclaim. The work speaks to Glackens's preference for using familiar locations and scenes of contemporary life, the sort of modern genre painting that helped to establish his reputation. The subject matter and gestural brushstrokes would become hallmarks of his style, linking him to American Impressionism. Glackens would resist such categorizations, yet although he had focused on a cheerful scene of middle-class leisure, the observational and almost mundane quality of his subjects and representations also connect him to the Ashcan School.
Glackens's depiction of his wife, Edith Dimock, blends tradition and innovation, updating the conventions of formal portraiture with an informality and honesty that mark it as modern painting. Formally attired, Edith appears in a black coat and hat with a long brown pleated skirt, seated next to a small table with white cloth on which sits a silver bowl full of fruit. Set against a dark background of loosely rendered brown and black brushstrokes, her face is turned slightly to the left as she looks out at the viewer. The nearly monochromatic palette and full-length composition recalls Édouard Manet's paintings of Victorine Meurent; Manet himself had looked back to Diego Velázquez, creating an art historical lineage that underscores the simplicity of this painting.
Portraits were an important part of Glackens's oeuvre, both artistically and financially. Yet in his refusal to idealize his sitter, he breaks with the expectations of portraiture to create a more modern portrayal. The artist depicted his new wife (they married the year of this painting) as she truly appeared, with her petite features, sharp nose, and small chin dwarfed by her heavily-draped garments. Compare this with the more idealized portrait of her, completed around the same time by the couple's friend artist Robert Henri.
Mouquin's was a popular New York City restaurant at the turn of the century, frequented by theater-goers and the artists of Glackens's circle including Robert Henri. This recognizable depiction of the space, featuring known regulars on the social circuit, marks the painting as thoroughly contemporary. Indeed, critics at the time were dismayed by its frank portrayal of informal and co-ed drinking. The man seated at the center, James Moore, was a friend known for introducing his attractive young companions as his "daughters." While his stylishly dressed partner is unidentified, Glackens included his own wife in the mirrored reflection behind the couple.
Indeed, in depicting a nightclub and composing the canvas to feature the central figures in front of a mirror, Glackens referenced Édouard Manet's Bar at the Folies Bergere. While his work is far less complicated than Manet's there is a similar repetition of the ambiguous female focal point, the upper-class man on the periphery, a careful still life in the foreground and hints of a raucous environment in the reflected image of a mirror.
Even though this work was included in the 1908 Macbeth show that came to identify The Eight and the Ashcan School, this painting demonstrates Glackens's distinct approach to painting in its colorful palette and bourgeois subject matter. His interest in the fashionable nightlife is evident, as he presents these figures to the viewer without judgment or condemnation; they are his friends and contemporaries, elevated into the tradition of art.