Overview: Glackens's At Mouquin's
An overview of Glackens's artistic career and a look at his candid depiction of urban nightlife in the early twentieth century.
Book: American Arts
Barter. J. et al. American Arts at the Art Institute of Chicago: From Colonial Times to World War I. Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago and New York: Hudson Press, 1998, p. 320-22.
William Glackens was one of The Eight, a group of artists who challenged the traditional selection and display practices of the National Academy of Design. In response to frequent rejections of their work under this system, they promoted and exhibited their art independently. Their name derived from the title of a 1908 exhibition of their work at the Macbeth Gallery in New York City. When At Mouquin’s was shown at The Art Institute of Chicago in 1908 as part of a traveling exhibition of works by The Eight, one Chicago art critic sardonically asked, "Can a Scotch highball or a Manhattan cocktail figure in a beautiful painting?" The same critic noticed that Glackens and his colleagues were extending the boundaries of art, not so much by their means of expression (figurative and "realistic"), but by their choice of subject matter: portraits of the urban populace and scenes of life in New York City. Like John Sloan in Renganeschi’s Saturday Night, Glackens knew the subject of the canvas intimately: Mouquin’s was a French restaurant located at Twenty-eighth Street and Sixth Avenue, close to the artist’s Thirtieth Street studio. The scene of Glackens’s painting and its emphasis on drinking, however, reveal that Mouquin’s catered to a clientele very different from the one that frequented the Italian eatery Sloan depicted. Glackens’s painting is further distinguished by its resemblance to nineteenth-century French art, particularly to Édouard Manet’s paintings of modern life.
Glackens visited Paris in the company of fellow painter Robert Henri in 1895 and 1896. Prior to this trip, Glackens was primarily a landscape painter. While in Paris, he reportedly studied the work of Manet and his contemporaries in the Gustave Caillebotte collection on view at the Musée du Luxembourg. Although his palette is dark, the scenes he produced of Parisian street life, and those of people enjoying leisure time in urban and suburban locales, attest to this influence. After his sojourn in Europe, Glackens settled in New York City; while establishing himself as a painter, he resumed working as a newspaper and magazine illustrator, a career he had begun in Philadelphia. By 1905, the year At Mouquin’s won an Honorable Mention at the Carnegie Institute’s Tenth Annual Exhibition of American Art, Glackens had established himself as both an illustrator and a painter.
In his correspondence with family and friends, Glackens often referred to Mouquin’s and the male protagonist of his painting, James B. Moore. A lawyer by training, Moore owned the Café Francis on West Thirty-fifth Street and advertised his restaurant as "New York’s Most Popular Resort of New Bohemia," in order to attract the artists and writers he sought as his friends. The fashionable woman intimately sharing the banquette with Moore has not been identified; perhaps she is one of the young women with whom Moore kept frequent company and referred to as his "daughters." Two other figures reflected in the mirror have been identified: Glackens’s wife Edith, whose head is positioned between Moore and his companion, and on the far right side, the art critic and early champion of Glackens’s work, Charles Fitzgerald. Judging from the angle of their reflections, Edith Glackens and Fitzgerald appear to be engaged in a conversation from which Moore has momentarily turned away. Humorously, he brandishes a glass of liquor in order to draw the attention of his somewhat bored-looking companion, who has yet to touch her cocktail.
Like the barmaid in Édouard Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1881–82; Courtauld Institute of Art, London), the lavishly bedecked woman in At Mouquin’s is inscrutable; what attracts her gaze remains the mystery that sustains the tension of the composition. She is also its most visually arresting element: her vivid blue dress and silvery gray cloak are painted with a confident bravura and creamy texture that caused some writers to dub Glackens the "American Manet." The artist’s inclusion of a tabletop still life of flowers, glasses, and liquor bottles is reminiscent of the French realist’s work as well, particularly his Folies-Bergère scene, which includes a similarly virtuoso still-life arrangement.
In New York and Chicago, critics perceived this picture as "sensational" and "vulgar," focusing on its candid depiction of drinking ("the man does not look like a Prohibitionist") and on the sexually charged side of social intercourse between men and women. Whereas this type of scene was commonplace in French painting by the turn of the century, North American audiences and artists were only on the brink of accepting sophisticated scenes of modern life that broached themes of sexuality and license as subjects for art. At Mouquin’s remains one of Glackens’s most renowned and accomplished paintings, both for its style and for its subject matter. Looking closely at his own milieu, the artist devised a scene that combines portraiture with genre painting, eschews clear narrative conventions, and ushers in a mode of painting appropriate to the pleasures and perils of the age.