- 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
Two years later Luks had his first one-man show, at Macbeth’s. The Post’s critic, Frank Jewett Mather, wrote of it: “George B. Luks is nothing if not versatile. Such a raw and drastic study as The Wrestlers would cause a shudder at every tea-pouring in Manhattan. On the other hand, long-haired lecturers will some day pounce upon the Whistlerian mystery and loveliness of the Little Gray Girl. He provides you with such masterpieces of characterization and beautiful painting as The Duchess, The Old Clothes Man, The Little Milliner and then produces a series of rather commonplace portraits, distinguished only by a certain probity of workmanship.”
Mather’s last statement pointed to an undeniable failing in Luks’s performance, one for which the poet Alfred Kreymborg advanced an intriguing hypothetical explanation in an essay on Luks’s pictures. “The keynote of all the work,” Kreymborg wrote, “is joy. Luks paints for the love of painting. He loves paint as a child loves mud. And that is why, perhaps, his portraits are not as successful as his inspired work. They have not been inspired. Someone has ordered and sat for the portrait. The someone came into the play. Luks was no longer alone. Unless the someone is a species of playmate. Then the portrait may turn out happily. Ordinarily, however, the real Luks canvas is a canvas Luks himself dreamed, a canvas free from any suggestion foreign to the subconscious self that is peculiarly his.”
“The world never had but two great artists… Frans Hals and little old George Luks”—so the painter loved to boast, and Luks’s affinity with the seventeenth-century Dutch master was indeed manifest in his choosing to depict ordinary people and scenes from everyday life, in his rapid, fluent brushwork, in the vivacity and informality of his canvases. As regards the portraits, each man painted for money; on the other hand, Hals’s were incomparably superior. Yet once, at least, Luks was inspired to paint a truly outstanding likeness, that of Otis Skinner, done in 1919, when the actor was starring on Broadway in The Honor of the Family. The Kreymborgian “playmate” involved was not Skinner, however, but the character he incarnated onstage and in whose costume he posed, a personage the art historian Mahonri Sharp Young described as a “half-potted brilliant braggart and bounder.” Young continued, a trifle unkindly: “That’s Luks to the life; he didn’t need to read himself into the part.”
Sometime around the turn of the century Luks had been married, briefly, to a woman who couldn’t abide his drinking, but then he had settled down happily with a cultivated beauty named Emma Louise Noble. For years Luks and the tolerant Emma—Babe, as he called her—had occupied a modest apartment on East Fifty-sixth Street; then, in the summer of 1912, they moved far uptown to a house and studio in Washington Heights. Luks delighted in his new surroundings, but that winter their remoteness and serenity must have struck his citybound friends as symptomatic of his detachment from the tumult convulsing New York’s art community, a tumult caused by an exhibition of contemporary paintings and sculpture that filled an entire armory on Lexington Avenue and Twenty-fifth Street. The Armory Show had been conceived as a showcase for the works of a great many artists, including several from foreign lands, and decisions as to what would be shown had largely been left to the organizing body’s president, the austere and uncommunicative Arthur B. Davies. Although no one could have known it from his pictures, Davies was intoxicated by the innovative art being turned out by avant-garde painters in Paris and was eager to expose it to his countrymen. From the moment the show opened, fauvist and cubist artworks—notably, among the latter, young Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase—captured the attention of the public and the press to the virtual exclusion of the far less sensational American entries.
Predictably some academicians howled in outrage, but for the ever open-minded Henri no such response was possible. Shaken, he scrutinized the French pictures intently for what they could teach him, and for a year or two thereafter he would play around, now and then, with cubist motifs and techniques. So would Davies and, occasionally, one or two others of The Eight. But not George Luks. He had decided just how he wanted to paint long before, and he was going to keep on painting that way to the end of his days.