The artist’s father, Thomas Edmund Greacen, arrived in New York from Scotland in 1868 and became active in the shoe business. Soon he married Isabella Wiggins, “the daughter of a wealthy New York family; applied her capital and his own shrewd judgment to the wholesale shoe trade, and prospered.” The family holdings expanded: “There was a brownstone at 6 West 50th Street. . . [and] a farm in Sullivan County where the four children spent their summers” (Knudsen, 1972, p. 5). One of these children, the second of three sons, Edmund W. Greacen, the future painter, was born on 18 September 1876, the year of the great Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Growing up in a relatively affluent household, Edmund first attended the Halsey School and then continued his education at New York University, where his curriculum included art. However, it seems that other activities such as banjo playing, track competition, and the Zeta Psi fraternity took precedence over art studies. At least his contemporary drawings reflected a rather carefree life since one sketchbook was “full of Gibson [type] girls and other echoes of the romantic illustrations of the period” (Knudsen, 1972, p. 6). More accomplished drawing appears in a sketchbook dating from the summer of 1895 when young Greacen was on a trip to Ireland. Two years later he graduated from New York University with a B.A. degree. Seeking to augment his pictorial skills, in November 1897 he enrolled in the sketch class of the Art Students League, but this lasted only about a month. Right at that time, ASL professors John Henry Twachtman, Childe Hassam, and others organized the Ten (American Painters), a group of “gentle rebels,” consisting mainly of impressionists.
In April of 1898 patriotic young Edmund was determined to enlist in the popular but brief Spanish-American War. His father would not allow this and sent the protesting young man around the world as a shoe wholesaler. In circling the globe, he enjoyed adventures and also found a good deal of unusual scenery to record in his sketchbooks. Edmund made drawings of Hong Kong and other exotic places with increasing discipline and simplicity. He returned to New York in 1899 and re-enrolled at the Art Students League. In the early spring of 1901, we find him in Kenyon Cox’s evening life class. Greacen left the ASL to attend the Chase School. The liberal ways of William Merritt Chase included painting en plein air and drawing figurative subjects from life on the canvas with a fully loaded brush. These methods were in direct conflict with precepts of his successor at the League, Kenyon Cox, an avowed traditionalist whose teaching was based on the French academic method of disciplined draftsmanship. Greacen was to remain with Chase for several years, also studying under other instructors such as Robert Henri, Luis Mora, and Frank V. DuMond. This training brought Greacen into contact with a wide variety of artistic influences, one of which was the urban realist Robert Henri, whose band of artistic rebels would soon be labeled the Ash Can School. However, Greacen followed the more conservative banner of Chase. Greacen used mostly a broadly brushed application of medium-range pigment to achieve his decorative compositions. For a third time, he enrolled in the Art Students League for the school year of 1902-03, and he augmented his skills as an illustrator under Fred Yoker and Walter A. Clark. Under Irving Wiles, Greacen also studied portraiture and fully adapted Chase’s manner of drawing with the brush. Encouraged by others, Greacen submitted his first work to the NAD annual in 1903.
During this period Greacen met and dated Miss Ethol Booth, an art student enrolled in Miss Morgan’s art school. In 1904 his work was shown in the annual of the Society of American Artists, and that November Greacen and Booth were married. Chase had been conducting summer classes in Europe for the last couple of years, so in the spring of 1905 Greacen and his wife accompanied the group on its destination to Spain. There was the usual opportunity to socialize, but more important was Greacen’s introduction to the old masters in the Prado in Madrid where he copied several works by Velázquez. Moreover, he and others sketched various scenes as they continued their travels. Even after Chase returned to America, Greacen and his wife continued their sojourn in Europe. On the advice of Chase, the Greacens went on to Holland and Belgium where he executed several canvases. After a stay in England, Edmund and Ethol moved to Paris in the fall of 1906, where their son Edmund Jr. was born. Meanwhile he managed to send his work to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts annuals (1906-09).
Although impressionism was already “old-fashioned” in Paris, a large group of American expatriates clung to the movement, especially in Giverny where they worked near Claude Monet. Greacen relocated his family into a small house there in 1907. In that milieu, he had the opportunity to meet Richard E. Miller, Frederick Frieseke, Karl Anderson, and other members of the last (third) generation of American impressionists who would subsequently bring the movement to its conclusion. The Greacens also became good friends with Monet’s son-in-law, Theodore Earl Butler, and his wife Marthe Hoschedé Butler. Greacen met Monet only once, but the memory was a lasting one. Years later he described Monet as a “handsome, rugged, grey-bearded man with a keen blue eye, constantly smoking cigarettes that seemed about to disappear in his great beard and set it in flames” (Knudsen, 1972, p. 8). Monet’s influence on Greacen is particularly evident in a canvas entitled Effet de neige exhibited in the 1907 Paris Salon. This superb impressionistic landscape shows a stream in winter. It is subjectively expressive through its shimmering surface quality, which results from the spontaneous brushwork, and the high-keyed palette. Gerdts (1993, p. 187) rightly points out, however, that Greacen’s tones are more muted and his brushwork softer than that of his Giverny colleagues; one sees a certain influence of Butler in this snowscene. In 1907, however, Greacen also painted The River Epte, an even more dazzling canvas with vibrant, broken brushwork and rich, jewel-like color. While living in Giverny, Greacen kept a busy spring exhibition schedule, then in 1908 a second child, a daughter named Nan, entered the scene. She would become a National Academician one day.
After another year in Giverny, Greacen and his family returned to New York. Although the Greacens lived in the city and became active in the art community, they also visited Old Lyme, Connecticut, where many artists resided permanently and others spent their summers. Numerous American impressionists worked in both Giverny and Old Lyme, so that when Greacen first ventured there in 1910, he found certain parallels between the places and a whole new group of friends. There he met Hassam, William Chadwick, and many others who painted in a manner similar to his. In the ensuing months New York still buzzed from the excitement of the Exhibition of Independent Artists, and in 1911 Greacen was given a one-man show at the Folsom Galleries. This was the first year the artist submitted work to the annual at the City Art Museum of St. Louis. In the following years, his works were exhibited regularly in the annuals of the Pennsylvania Academy and the National Academy. He balanced work with a busy social schedule, as well as physical exercise, playing tennis and squash. In 1913 when the revolutionary Armory Show took New York by storm, the ever-traditional Greacen became a member of the National Arts Club. At that time his subject matter was still varied, and frequently his wife figured in his compositions.
In choosing his subjects, whether in Giverny, Old Lyme, Provincetown, Noank, or New York City, Greacen’s selectivity of scenery was superb. Usually working en plein air, he positioned his easel to capture a harmonious balance in his compositions. One urban scene from 1914 is Madison Square, a work reminiscent of Butler’s paintings of Paris, but brimming with human activity and reflective of Henri’s dictum that art should address itself to contemporary life, especially the urban kind. In addition to these rather attractive Manhattan scenes, Greacen turned his attention to things considered less picturesque, for instance, the docks of the Hudson River.
Various New York Galleries handled Greacen’s work during this period, including Ainslie, Knoedler, Reinhardt, and Macbeth. Greacen and his friend Rae S. Bredin organized the Manhattan School of Art at 333 Fourth Avenue and offered courses in illustration and painting. Because of the war, it remained open for less than one year. Greacen must have felt some personal redemption after having missed the Spanish-American War by donating his services to the armed forces in World War I. He decorated barracks and canteens for French soldiers in the department of Vosges, France and in the fall of 1918, he took time off to execute about twenty-five canvases on his own, a number of which were depictions of soldiers and war destruction. After he returned to America, Greacen resumed his usual activities. In 1920 he was elected an Associate member of the National Academy and in 1921 he received the $1,000 Shaw Purchase Prize from the Salmagundi Club. Greacen had another solo show in 1922 at the Macbeth Gallery, the champion art dealer of the American impressionist circle. It was also during this year that he and several others formed the Painters and Sculptors Gallery Association, subsequently renamed the Grand Central Art Galleries. By 1924 Greacen with others formed the Grand Central School of Art, a project to which he remained devoted for many years. He was instrumental in providing a well-rounded curriculum by encouraging courses in illustration, interior decorating, and anatomy. His directorship of the school also brought on increased social obligations, but he continued to execute his well-known garden subjects, portraits, and an occasional nude.
Greacen’s work was seen in the spring and winter annuals of the National Academy and at the Corcoran Gallery of Art during the 1920s as he continued to paint his typical subjects, although he spent more time in his studio than out-of-doors. Working through the early years of the Depression, Greacen was elected full academician in the NAD in 1935 and moved from 18th Street to the National Arts Club at Grammercy Park. Two years later he suffered the first of a series of strokes that were to stop his active career. After the closing of the Grand Central School in 1944, the Greacens moved to the Gulf Coast of Florida. Following several more strokes, Edmund Greacen died at White Plains on 4 October1949 at the age of seventy-three. His death went largely unnoticed, while the austere art of Pierre Soulages, Robert Motherwell, and Franz Kline had replaced the impressionists’ imagery of the genteel Good Life with a new, urgent, and direct creative expression.
Richard H. Love is currently working on the catalogue raisonné of Edmund Greacen’s paintings.
Elizabeth Greacen Knudsen, Edmund W. Greacen, N.A.: American Impressionist 1876-1949. Exh. cat. Jacksonville, FL: The Cummer Gallery of Art, 1972; Connecticut and American Impressionism, Exh. cat. Storrs, CT: University of Connecticut, 1980, pp. 160-161; David Sellin, Americans in Brittany and Normandy 1860-1910. Phoenix, AZ: Phoenix Art Museum,1982, pp. 123, 216; Robert R. Preato, Sandra L. Langer, and James D. Cox, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: Transformations of the Modern American Mode, 1885-1945. New York: Grand Central Art Galleries, 1987, pp. 34, 51, 98; Florence Griswold Museum, En Plein Air: The Art Colonies at East Hampton and Old Lyme. Old Lyme, CT: 1989, pp. 44-45; William H. Gerdts, Lasting Impressions: American Painters in France 1865-1915. Chicago: Terra Foundation for the Arts, 1992, pp. 88-90; Idem, Masterworks of American Impressionism from the Pfeil Collection. Alexandria, VA: Art Services International, 1992, cat. no. 37; Idem, Monet’s Giverny, An Impressionist Colony. New York: Abbeville Press, 1993, pp. 187-192; Idem, Impressionist New York. New York: Abbeville Press, 1994, pp. 162-163, 168-170; Bruce Weber, The Giverny Luminists: Frieseke, Miller and Their Circle. Exh. cat. New York: Berry-Hill Galleries, 1995, pp. 15-16; William A. Coles, East Meets West: American Impressionism. Exh. cat. Phoenix, AZ: Phoenix Art Museum, 1996, p. 81; Lisa N. Peters, Visions of Home: American Impressionist Images of Suburban Leisure and Country Comfort. Exh. cat. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1997, cat. no. 28; Richard H. Love and William Marshall, The Marshall Collection. Exh. cat. Chicago: Haase-Mumm Publishing Co., 1999, pp. 38-39.
Written and submitted by R.H. Love and Michael Preston Worley, Ph.D.