New York at the turn of the century, was poignantly recorded by a group of pioneering artists commonly referred to as the Ashcan School. The Ashcan School, composed of Robert Henri, George Bellows, George Luks, Everett Shinn and William Glackens, portrayed the streets of New York with a fresh and uncompromising manner that was unparalleled at the time. Contrary to prevalent aesthetic theories that touted style and execution, the Ashcan School believed that subject and meaning represented the elements most important to a work: these artists responded reverently to the gritty realities of urban living. Similar to his colleagues, William Glackens investigated the bustling street life of New York, focusing particularly on the environs of Washington Square Park where he had a studio at 50 Washington Square South. Unlike his Ashcan contemporaries, Glackens employed a lighthearted outlook with which he combined a high-keyed palette that was influenced by French Impressionists artists such as Pierre-August Renoir and Claude Monet. Glackens' images, especially those executed after 1908, have stronger affiliations with the Impressionists than with the hardened images of his Realist companions. Washington Square, from 1910-1914, celebrates Glackens' most cherished attributes as an artist. Through an array of sparkling color, Glackens in the present work captures with gaiety a moment in the daily life of the well-trodden Washington Square Park.
Public parks such as Washington Square at the beginning of the twentieth century were urban refuges accessible to any city dweller. The state of these parks sparked outrage with the local newspapers. In 1907, one newspaper decried the "deplorable deterioration of the parks and squares of this city" and "the riffraff of humanity" in Washington, Union, and Madison squares, and in Central Park, "which has its full quota of...tramps these days," commenting that "many a tract intended as an oasis where self-respecting working men or tired toilers might rest...and woman and children might go for outings and exercise, is now practically in the possession of the idle and the vicious...[and] the air is tainted by diseased and filthy vagrants who have almost driven away those for whom the parks were intended." (New York Herald, April 7, 1907 in American Impressionism and Realism, New York, 1994, p. 155)
Glackens, in contrast, viewed New York parks such as Washington Square with a more benevolent eye. Through his canvases he retold the daily lives of the diverse and fascinating people who populated New York parks capturing with acuity and vitality a myriad of interesting scenes. It has been written that the "focal point of William Glackens' New York is the world of Washington Square, at once genteel and open to all, where uptown meets downtown, where the tradition of old New York encounters and combines (as it does to this day) with the new, where Fifth Avenue terminates all its last ditch elegance in a sward of miraculously green surprise, where wealth and poverty mingle in wondering contrast, at once possibly forgiving but not forgetting. In his work draftsmanship and composition and color celebrate the city from every vantage..." (L. Katz, William Glackens in Retrospect, St. Louis, Missouri, 1966, n.p.)
Washington Square offers a glimpse of daily activities of the urban dweller who traverse the park, taking advantage of the wide pathways and refreshing shade provided by the lush green trees, to destinations elsewhere. Glackens portrays an array of passers-by from all classes ranging from an elegantly clad svelte lady to a matronly woman donning merely a shawl and plain skirt. Through the clever manipulation of color and brush, Glackens ornaments the canvas surface with thick strokes of bright enamel-like pigments of red, green, yellow, orange and black. Glackens further enhances the freshness and gaiety of the scene by infusing it with a rejuvenating spring light. Washington Square poignantly illustrates Glackens' democratizing eye and light-hearted view, conquering the conventional visions of the city's ugly urban realities.