- Historic Sites
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 found the job enjoyable and gratifying. “I have utterly no patience,” he later told a reporter, “with the fellows whose style is ‘ruined’ if they must make drawings for newspapers or advertisements, whose ‘art is prostituted’ if they must use it to get daily bread. Any style that can be hurt, any art that can be smirched by such experiences is not worth keeping clean. Making commercial drawings, and especially doing newspaper work, gives an artist unlimited experience, teaches him life, brings him out. If it doesn’t, there was nothing in him to bring out, that’s all.”
Early in 1897 Glackens turned up from France, and Luks got him a job on the World drawing cartoons; soon the two men were sharing a fourth-floor walk-up on East Thirtieth Street. Next, Luks talked his bosses into hiring Ev Shinn away from the Philadelphia Press, and for a while all three members of what Henri one day referred to nostalgically as the “Old Stock Company” worked happily together. But Glackens had come back from his European sojourn determined to become a painter, and it was Glackens who, early in 1898, persuaded Luks to paint his first oil sketches of city street life.
As the twentieth century began, Luks was still drawing cartoons for the World, but he now saw himself primarily as a painter, with an urgent mission to translate the life around him into paint on canvas. Restlessly he roamed the city and its outskirts in search of subjects. His sketchbooks reveal that he attended a music hall show and a Long Island polo match, while observing at other times horseback riders in Central Park and longshoremen toiling on a snow-swept pier, imbuing each scene and activity portrayed with a touch of drama, as his artist-reporter’s training had taught him to do. But if he sought to capture the human pageant in all its diversity, it was already clear that his deepest sympathies lay with society’s outcasts. As Glackens’s son Ira was to write decades later, “Nobody better than Luks could depict derelicts, drunks, old hags in shawls, beggars, Irish cooks, urchins. His portraits of these, though taking full advantage of the bleary eyes, rum-blossoms, caved-in, toothless mouths, are surprisingly tender, too. He honored the dignity of his sitters, whatever or whoever they were. He never satirized or ridiculed.”
Other painters, notably Sloan and Shinn, were also investigating the city’s seamy side, of course, but none did so more directly than Luks, or with more feeling. Early in 1904 he participated with five other New York realists in a show at the National Arts Club that caused a considerable stir, prompting the normally staid Times to headline a write-up by its critic (and the club’s founder) Charles de Kay STARTLING WORKS BY RED-HOT AMERICAN PAINTERS. But the following year, when he turned thirty-nine, was Luks’s annus mirabilis; in 1905 he produced fully half the canvases on which his posthumous fame rests. These include Hester Street a busy view of that Lower East Side thoroughfare, thronged with immigrant women, and four “portraits”: The Spielers, a pair of little slum girls dancing gleefully on a sidewalk, presumably to the music of an unseen barrel organ; The Sand Artist, a smudgy-faced urchin in an overcoat too large for him; the ironically titled Old Duchess ravaged by time and poverty but still recognizably her proud self; and The Little Milliner, which would move the Tribune ’s archconservative and immensely influential Royal Cortissoz, who in general faulted Luks for his slapdash style, to lyrical praise.
But that would be a decade or more later; in the meantime, juries refused Luks’s pictures. This bothered him, but not unduly. “I take a lot of trouble and paint what I feel is a smashing good picture,” he told an interviewer, “and when I send it to an exhibition—against my own judgment and just to please my friends—I’ll be hanged if they don’t refuse to hang it because it might put some of the nice old ladies’ nice old work out. ‘It’s too noisy, Luks! Can’t you give ’em somepin’ tender and sweet and ladylike?’ Yah! I can if I choose, but that sort don’t interest me; and what is life unless you do what interests you?”
By the end of 1905 the prolific Luks had almost two hundred paintings stacked against his studio walls, but at least he had sold a few; poor Sloan, now thirty-five, had not yet disposed of a single canvas, and another six years would go by before his first purchaser would show up. Still, there were signs that prospects were improving.