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The Big Draw

While Cuban and American troops cleaned their guns and sharpened their bayonets for battle, William Glackens readied his pens and ink. Feverish from malaria, the illustrator huddled in a trench in Cuba while documenting the famous attack on San Juan Hill in 1898.

Photography was still in its infancy back then, so guys like Glackens drew pictures to accompany accounts of the Spanish-American War and other news events. In The Night After San Juan, which appeared in McClure's Magazine, the draftsman and graphic artist depicted dark-clad, blurry-edged figures poking tall grass with bayonets as they stepped past dead bodies.

Glackens (18701938) documented everything from parades to wars in his work, which looks like a cross between cartoon and realist painting. The Philadelphia native began his career at age 21, drawing for newspapers first, then magazines. He also illustrated short stories and designed book covers. Later he abandoned illustration altogether to paint full-time. But it's the early work that's on display in "William Glackens: The Story Teller" at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale.

Early in his career, Glackens developed a knack for conveying the mood of a scene with telling body language. In the charcoal drawing for a Collier's Weekly short story about a woman fleeing an abusive suitor, for example, the image is haunting. As the woman runs, she clutches her hands together, as if pleading. And with her neck craned and lips parted, she's obviously calling out for help.

While Glackens' illustrations often accompanied stories, one of his best-known drawings, Christmas Shoppers, the Day Before Christmas on Madison Square, is a story in itself. In the large crayon-and-watercolor panel, which graced the cover of Collier's in 1912, a skinny Santa rings a bell. Nearby a couple of men in trench coats and black bowlers work as a pickpocket team. Meanwhile, a white-gloved traffic cop, oblivious to the thieves, whistles a motorcar to a halt. Behind the car, a horse drawing a wagon rears back, so as not to put its nose through the motorcar's rear window.

And that's just the beginning. It would take more than an hour to pick out all the little details in Glackens' portrait of holiday chaos. It's definitely a picture worth a thousand words.

-- John Ferri

"William Glackens: The Story Teller" is on view through November 4 at the Museum of Art, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Admission is $3 to $6. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday; until 8 p.m. Friday; and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Call 954-525-5500.

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John Ferri

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