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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
In preparation for the National Academy of Design’s spring 1907 show, Henri himself was appointed to the thirty-man jury. When Luks’s Man with Dyed Mustachios was placed on the viewing stand, Kenyon Cox, an ultraconservative neoclassic painter, yelled, “To hell with it!” Over Henri’s vociferous protests the picture was voted down—twice. Luks, ever the laughing philosopher, remained undismayed. “I don’t look on this thing from a personal point of view,” he said. “I’m trying to do things; if they don’t understand them, I don’t care any more than I do for a bottle of turpentine. I don’t propose to berate them. After all, it’s a question for Father Time.” But Henri was not so detached: “The wholesale rejections last night show, I’m afraid, that a large part of the Academy is against all that is real and vital in American art.”
That very evening Henri, Sloan, and Glackens met to discuss the feasibility of putting on a group show of their own in defiance of the academy. And a few weeks later Luks joined the trio at another meeting, together with two other painters who were well known to all of them but whose paintings were different in the sense that neither man could be classified as belonging to the Ashcan school: one was Ernest Lawson, a landscapist who lived at the sparsely settled northern tip of Manhattan, finding his inspiration in the area’s farmlands and in the bridges spanning the Harlem River, and the other was Arthur B. Davies, a reserved upstate New Yorker who painted oddly compelling outdoor scenes, suggestive of mythology, in which classical nudes strolled through Arcadian landscapes. Eventually it was agreed to invite Davies’s close friend Maurice Prendergast, a shy Bostonian bachelor, also well known to Henri and Glackens, who painted tapestrylike oils and watercolors of brightly dressed women at the seaside, to participate. By mid-May the roster of future exhibitors was complete: Henri, Sloan, Glackens, Luks, Shinn, Lawson, Davies, and Prendergast.
Scenting a battle in the making, the press accorded the rebels generous coverage, and before long other critics and reporters followed the lead of the Sun in referring to them as The Eight. Having, with some difficulty, located and booked a gallery they could afford—William Macbeth’s establishment on the fourth floor of 450 Fifth Avenue, at Fortieth Street —The Eight set about readying their pictures for the show’s scheduled opening on February 3,1908.
The Sun had recently asked a number of artists to name the most gifted living American painter. “Every artist… replied —and many were Academicians—‘Oh, George Luks! Why, he is the biggest talent let loose in this town. But—?’ ‘But?’ we asked. ‘Confound the fellow, he will paint to suit himself, and that won’t do in New York; no, nor in Paris or London.’ ”
Whether or not it still wouldn’t do remained to be seen, but no one could doubt that Luks had painted each of the six canvases he had entered in the forthcoming show to please himself. Two featured battered but undefeated old women; another, a battered old coachman. And no fewer than four included birds and animals—pet macaws, a pet goose, pigs, and a coach horse—these being, perhaps, next to underprivileged fellow humans, his favorite subjects.
The Sun asked artists to name the best U.S. painter alive; all said Luks.
On the evening of Monday, February 3, the invited guests at the Macbeth Gallery paid more attention than was customary at exhibition openings to the sixty-three artworks on display. And at 9:00 A.M. the next day a dozen curious individuals had already assembled in the corridor when the gallery reopened; after they had gone in, others arrived, and so it continued all day, with people swarming through the three small rooms at a rate of three hundred an hour. The same thing happened on Wednesday, and later not even a snowstorm slowed the influx of visitors. Their opinions were, for the most part, unfavorable; as Macbeth was to acknowledge, “A loud chorus of disapproval … was heard every day.”
Nevertheless, the show, which closed on the fifteenth, unquestionably was, as Macbeth exulted, “a remarkable success”: seven pictures were sold, four of them to the sculptor and society figure Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. The overall take came to almost four thousand dollars, and Macbeth figured that he could have sold twenty-five thousand dollars’ worth if the times had been better (the economy had not yet fully recovered from the effects of the Panic of 1907). Only Sloan, Glackens, and Prendergast failed to sell anything.
The Eight’s show signalized the emergence of realism in American art and the eclipse of the National Academy of Design as sole arbiter of the nation’s artistic taste.