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He claimed his critics didn’t like his work because it was “too noisy,” but he didn’t care what any of them said. George Luks’s determination to paint only what interested him was his greatest strength—and his greatest weakness.
February 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 1
Probing westward along the streets of Manhattan, the first light of Sunday, October 29,1933, revealed, stretched out in a doorway on Sixth Avenue, near Fifty-second Street, under the el, a well-dressed elderly man, solidly built and balding, with a little patch of fine white hair, an inverted triangle, at the center of his forehead. He was dead. Letters in an inside jacket pocket identified him as George B. Luks, the artist, of 140 East Twenty-eighth Street, and an examination of his corpse established that he had been felled by a heart attack. Most of the dead man’s friends assumed, on learning of his death, that he had met his end in a drunken brawl. This assumption was consistent with the hour of his demise and with its location in a district filled with speakeasies (Prohibition had five weeks left to run), but as no autopsy was performed, people could interpret the available data in whatever way they chose, the author of Luks’s profile in the Dictionary of American Biography, for one, solemnly asserting that the painter had been struck down “as he was studying the effect of the sunrise on a typical New York scene.”
So perished, at sixty-seven, a man about whom the critic James Gibbons Huneker of the New York Sun had written that “it is absolutely impossible to pin down on paper any adequate description of him. He is Puck. He is Caliban. He is Falstaff. He is a tornado. He is sentimental. He can sigh like a lover and curse like a trooper. Sometimes you wonder over his versatility: a character actor, a low comedian, even a song-and-dance man, a poet, a profound sympathizer with human misery and a human orchestra. The vitality of him!”
Today Luks is chiefly remembered as one of The Eight, unconventional painters who effectively broke the stranglehold on American taste in art exerted for decades by custodians of the genteel tradition in the ranks of the National Academy of Design. His best canvases, instinct with life, still move viewers, and a few are ranked by some connoisseurs as masterpieces of genre painting.
George Benjamin Luks was born on August 13, 1866—as he put it, “just about the time our god-damn Congress was trying to bash Andy Johnson out of office”—in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, the third surviving child of Emil Charles and Bertha von Kraemer Luks. He grew up southeast of Williamsport in grimy, coal-mining Shenandoah. Both his physician father and his mother were of German extraction, but George, evidently opting for a pedigree more closely reflecting his preferences in art of the past, would later claim to be of French, Dutch, and Bavarian descent.
Dr. Luks was a clever draftsman, and Mrs. Luks liked to paint, and they recognized and encouraged George’s early inclination toward art. When the boy finished high school, Luks père packed him off to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and then sent him abroad to study at the famous old art academy of Düsseldorf. As circumstances permitted, George traveled around Western Europe visiting museums and familiarizing himself with the old masters, including three whose works appealed to him particularly strongly: Hals, Rembrandt, and Cranach. At last he settled down, in London and Paris, to study under a succession of teachers, “from whom I never learned anything, always excepting Renoir, who is great any way you look at him.”
So passed as many as ten Wanderjahre. Just when the wanderer made it back to his native shore is problematical, but by early 1894 he was employed by the Philadelphia Press as an artist-reporter, dashing around the city to record, in rapid pencil strokes, train wrecks and traffic accidents, fires and floods, strikes, trials, and the scenes of murders, suicides, and robberies, then hurrying back to the office to work up finished pen-and-ink drawings for the waiting photoengraver. Away from work he shared an apartment with another novice Press artist just seventeen years old, one Everett Shinn.
Luks entered a bar “like a tank with a child at the wheel.”
Luks and Shinn were an odd duo, and not only because of the decade’s difference in their ages. Although both stood about five and a half feet tall, the stocky Luks must have had fifty pounds on his skinny roommate, and while the latter never under any circumstances touched liquor, the former guzzled it happily in any form whenever it was handy. Even so, the two got along splendidly. In addition to a lively interest in women, they possessed in common a passion for clothes, Shinn later recalling that Luks favored “shadow plaids of huge dimensions, the latest word in suburban realty maps,” and that “vests … were featured, cream-colored corduroy, like doormats laid out in strips of a hawser’s thickness.”