Glackens' friend Everett Shinn contends that "William J. Glackens is the greatest draughtsman this country has produced. I know of no other American artist who has equalled his extraordinary ability as an interpreter of contemporary life."
Born in Philadelphia and educated at Central High School there, Glackens began his career in 1901 as an artist-reporter and illustrator on the staff of the Philadelphia Record before moving to the Press, where he met John Sloan, George Luks, and Everett Shinn, all of whom would join him in the 1908 exhibition that established the group called The Eight or, more derogatively, the Ashcan School. The newspaper job allowed Glackens to finance night classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the only formal training he received. Inspired by Robert Henri, mentor to a generation of painters, Glackens soon focused his interest primarily on painting, and with Henri's encouragement he set forth on a cattle boat to France, where he lived for more than a year, traveling, painting, and studiously avoiding the academies.
Upon his return to America, the young artist took up residence in New York and began to draw magazine illustrations. It was at this time that the group who would become The Eight coalesced, united by a commitment to depict life without sentimentalizing or prettifying it. From the beginning, with the first exhibitions of 1901, Glackens's rare quality of observation and his lively transcription were noted by the critics, and their favorable comments encouraged the modest artist, who, four years later, won honorable mention at the 1905 Carnegie International exhibition with his famous work At Mouquin's, now in The Art Institute of Chicago. Glackens finally renounced illustration altogether and devoted himself to painting, eventually working in an Impressionist style reminiscent of Renoir. Heavily influenced by the French painters, he purchased their work for his friend and fellow baseball enthusiast Albert Barnes, whose foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania, became one of the great repositories of French nineteenth-century art in America.
It is noteworthy, that along with his constant survey of the life around him, Glackens also possessed a profound understanding of the conventions of representation. In Town It's Different, very much resembles English and Continental styles of illustration in its refinement and finish as well as in specific details. Shinn, although he noted Glackens's originality, also compared his work to that of the French artists and social critics Forain, Daumier, and Gavarni and documented the fact that Glackens and his group of friends would haunt the galleries to study the work of other illustrators. It was Glackens who introduced his acquaintances to the illustrative work of Charles Keene and George du Maurier, "from whom he derived much inspiration." Glackens certainly drew on other artists' works for some of his types, such as the modestly clad man at the left of In Town It's Different, who recalls figures by Jean-Francois Raffaelli, while the top-hatted young man with the ascot resembles the elegant figures of George du Maurier and Charles Dana Gibson. References to Sir John Tenniel are also discernible, and the abrupt cropping of the image suggests exposure to the art of Edgar Degas. So it is not surprising that Sadakichi Hartmann paid more for this drawing (eighty-five dollars). In Town It's Different enjoyed a special place as frontispiece in the August 1899 issue of Scribner's. It stood on its own, not side by side with the poem it was meant to illustrate, a frivolous concatenation of rhymed observations about spring entitled "An Urban Harbinger" by the hopeful versifier E. S. Martin.
Again Glackens chose a crowd scene, with the "delectable Sophronia" riding in an ornate coach with her father, and a throng of town types passing by on the sidewalks. Beyond the assumption that the woman is Sophronia, the picture has little to do with the literal events in the poem, another device characteristic of French illustration of the period. Further, this image is not a faithful transcription of life as observed from a window: careful scrutiny reveals how meticulously and deliberately Glackens assembled the elements. The ten foreground figures represent the gamut of sexes, ages, and social class in their expressions, clothes (especially hats), mien, and the direction of their gazes. He stressed, for example, the contrast between the haughty countenance and bearing of the beautiful, elegantly attired child in the foreground, who regards the viewer with such self-possession, and the cowed, sickly, impoverished old woman who apologetically shuffles along the same sidewalk.
Everett Shinn described the materials used by his friend, noting that Glackens initially worked in pen and ink, later substituting a "fine pointed sable brush for the steel pen." For tonal work that would be reproduced by the half tone process, Glackens used wash, tempera, charcoal, and carbon pencil, sometimes mixing the media if the image required it. He discovered red chalk in Paris, and he favored drybrush over graphite pencil, which he never found as sympathetic to work with as charcoal with its dark, rich tonal effects. "Watercolor and pastel were used to accent his drawings, to give sparkle to some of his illustrations marked for black and white reproduction. The color instinct of the painter was constantly asserting itself."
The papers Glackens preferred were as eclectic as his working methods. His favorite types, again according to Shinn, were grocery wrappings and wallpaper samples.
The wrapping paper found in grocery shops in the old days had a beautiful surface for
drawing, especially for carbon and chalk. The other [favorite] was wallpaper sample books.
Some of his best drawings in red chalk were done on the backs of these warm-toned papers that
possessed just the right "tooth" for his rapid strokes—No. 2946 Wall, and No. 2947 Border,
lie under some of his masterpieces!
In fact, In Town It's Different was made on wallpaper.
Given the quality and interest of his drawings, as well as the often positive response to Glackens's newspaper and magazine work, it is, as his son Ira remarked, "hard to believe that [Glackens] hated to do illustrations—which was the sad fact." There is no doubt, though, that his experience in illustration served him well for his painting, since it fostered his lightning scrutiny of an event and developed his skill at instantaneous transcription or the uncannily accurate retention of details that he could reproduce later at the office. Shinn noted that Glackens always "found his subjects in the teeming, sprawling Metropolitan populace" and affirmed that, "If historians of the future wish to know what America of the city streets was like at the turn of the century, they have only to look at these drawings." Glackens's fascination with real life never waned, and he leveled a penetrating eye on the people who passed by the window of his Washington Square studio, making quick sketches that he would then incorporate into finished works.