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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
Luks’s usual hangout was O’Malley’s saloon, across from the Press building, where, as Shinn recalled, “his rumbling advance along a bar rail was like a tank rolling on with a child at the wheel and all guns popping cork.” It was there, perhaps, in exchanges with fellow barflies, that he worked out the details of his erstwhile career as champion light heavyweight prizefighter Whitey Lewis, alias “Chicago Whitey.” Recollections of his glory days in the ring, with animated reenactments, were to become a staple of Luks’s repertory, and on his death most of his obituaries were to note his imaginary pugilistic triumphs as fact, and a few respected reference books still do.
In the summer of 1894 Ev Shinn left the Press for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he met the twenty-three-year-old John Sloan, a fine draftsman who turned out illustrations and incidental artwork for the paper’s Sunday supplement. Sloan had just moved into the Walnut Street studio-cum-living quarters of Robert Henri, a painter and art teacher, and that fall, at Sloan’s invitation, Shinn and Luks started going there on Tuesday evenings for stag get-togethers at which young art students and artists of various descriptions engaged in bull sessions. Among the participants was a fellow newspaper artist-reporter the roommates took to at once: quiet William J. Glackens of the Philadelphia Ledger.
Henri, at twenty-nine the oldest young man present, tended to dominate the discussions. At the Pennsylvania Academy he had absorbed from Thomas Anshutz the essential teachings of the latter’s revered mentor and predecessor Thomas Eakins, the great realist, who had exhorted his students “to peer deeper into the heart of American life” in order “to create a great and distinctly American art.” Henri urged his audience of fledgling artists to forgo pictures that were merely pretty and instead start painting the life around them with all the truthfulness and energy they could muster.
Most of his young hearers welcomed this talk, looking upon Henri as a liberator. Not Luks, however. Only a year younger than his host and determinedly independent, he wasn’t about to be Henri’s disciple or anyone else’s. Made uneasy, moreover, by so much seriousness, he shunned the Tuesday-evening discussions. But party nights, when Welsh rabbits were washed down with quantities of beer, were another matter. Those occasions invariably found him in the Walnut Street studio, regaling the company as impulse dictated: standing on a box to ad-lib uproarious impersonations of each man present; or pretending, so realistically it could make your heart skip a beat, to try to escape from a frozen-over pond, his big hands fanning the air frantically for overhanging branches; or faultlessly mimicking musical instruments.
If Luks alone among the Philadelphia artists destined to be a member of The Eight was never to acknowledge Henri’s role in effecting his transformation, it would nevertheless be largely thanks to the latter’s example that he, like the others, would become a serious painter. Of the group, only Luks, ironically, would remain true all his life to Henri’s way of painting.
In June 1895 Henri and Glackens sailed for France to paint and look at pictures, and in December, Luks, now with the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, took ship with the correspondent Maurice O’Leary for Cuba to cover the insurrection raging in that island colony of Spain. In February 1896 he wrote Shinn that he and O’Leary were the only foreign newspapermen there who had witnessed any action, the rest having stayed in Havana, lounging about in cafés and getting their news “from the local bakers.”
Luks’s combat drawings were graphic enough to satisfy the most bloodthirsty reader, but had he actually observed the violent scenes depicted therein? The doubts of his Philadelphia friends gained substantiation from a report that reached them of an incident that had occurred one day in a Cuban railway car packed with newspapermen, among them, seated across from Luks, Stephen Crane and Richard Harding Davis. As the train rattled across open country, a burst of gunfire was heard; Luks dived under his seat, then looked up at the famous war correspondents. “You fellows sit up there,” he told them coolly. “I have a future.”
Toward the end of March, Luks’s drawings stopped appearing in the Bulletin, and his friends learned that he had been fired for not filing his reports on time. Luks sailed north. Arriving in New York broke and hungry on a chilly April evening, shivering in his linen suit, he spent the night on a park bench and the next morning sought and found work on Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, where soon he was drawing the highly popular “Yellow Kid” cartoons.