Urban Realism and the American Scene
Object-William Glackens, Bal Bullier
William Glackens, a Philadelphia native, was inspired by the dark colors, expressive brushwork, and ideals of artistic freedom promoted by the artist and teacher Robert Henri (1865–1929). In addition, he was drawn to the urban subject matter and flattened forms that characterized paintings of the French artist Édouard Manet (1832–1883). Bal Bullier, one of Glackens’s earliest oil paintings, prefigures his affiliation with the progressive New York artists known (at first derisively) as the Ashcan school; they depicted a wide range of big-city scenes in a deliberately crude, painterly style. Here, a woman lifts her skirt flirtatiously to reveal her white petticoat as she glances at her partner, stiff in his formal suit and top hat. The mismatched couple in Bal Bullier demonstrates Glackens’s ability to capture not only an urban setting but also intriguing nuances of interaction among people of different social classes.
Learn more about this painting on the Terra Foundation website.
This very early work by William Glackens, Bal Bullier, radiates youth and ambition. In his choice of topic—a Parisian night scene—and in his use of flattened figures, muted tones, and gestural brushwork, Glackens clearly aims to emulate the French impressionists, especially Édouard Manet (1832–1883). The largely dark outfits of the crowd, crammed into a vague black mass against the top edge of the canvas, recall, for instance, Manet’s Bal masqué à l’Opéra of 1873 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC). The central two dancers strongly resemble characters portrayed by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901)—the contrasting petticoats of the woman and the top hat of the man are signature features popularized by the can-can dancer La Goulue (Louise Weber,1866–1929) and her long-time partner Valentin Le Désossé (Jacques Renaudin, 1843–1907). And the blurry faces emerging from the indistinct crowd are reminiscent of the mottled light illuminating dancers and café customers in the Bal du Moulin de la Galette (1876, Musée d’Orsay, Paris) by Auguste Renoir (1841–1919). Glackens’s inclusion of artificial lighting might also discreetly refer to Manet’s insistence on the artificiality of the electric globes in his Bar aux Folies Bergère (1882, The Courtauld Gallery, London).
As art historian S. Hollis Clayson has demonstrated in her work on artificial lighting in late nineteenth-century art, this attention to electricity is perceptible in many works by American artists in Paris, yet they often merely allude to the modernity that the impressionists, by contrast, depicted in its full glare. Glackens, like many of his compatriots in the French capital, remains, as Clayson puts it, an “outsider,” eager to show he understands and participates in Parisian artistic life, while at the same time keeping at a safe distance from it. This fleeting reference to electricity is far from the only symptom of this distancing. In the mid-1890s, the Bal Bullier, a dance hall on the edge of Montparnasse and the Quartier Latin, was losing ground to the Montmartre cafés on the other bank of the Seine. And like most such “café-concerts,” its originally subversive identity was fading. Nuits à Paris, a nightlife guide written for tourists visiting the 1889 Exposition Universelle, notes that while the Bal Bullier had been the “last refuge of French gaiety” in the 1870s, its original population of rebellious students and the working-class girls dubbed grisettes had now been replaced by “commercialism and English coolness, bankers, politicians, and filles de brasserie”—café waitresses dabbling in casual prostitution. The golden age of dance halls in the 1860s and 1870s had coincided with the artistic careers of the genre’s most important performers and impressionist painters, but by the 1890s this once-provocative avant-garde had shifted toward standardized show business, with more generic shows and images shaped for the consumption of a larger, less adventurous audience. One could compare, for instance, Glackens’s picture to the 1894 poster advertising Bal Bullier by Georges Meunier (1869–1942), itself a tamed version of Jules Chéret’s (1836–1932) daring precedent. On the threshold of a career devoted to the depiction of American street life, young Glackens started paradoxically with a look back, paying nostalgic homage to a Parisian night-life and art scene already on the verge of extinction.
Assistant Professor, American Studies, Université Bourgogne Franche-Comté, France