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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
He would talk for hours about anything—except his private life.
The outbreak of war in Europe failed to trigger any uprush of pro-German sentiment in Luks’s breast, as it did in many Americans of German descent, and as the grim drama unfolded, he was inspired to paint large, crowded canvases of Allied troops on the march: Czecho-Slovak Army Entering Vladivostok, Siberia, in 1918, The Bersaglieri (crack Italian infantry), and Blue Devils on Fifth Avenue, showing a company of soldiers from the French Alps parading through New York City. This last picture scored with the public, and one critic praised the “thrilling blue of the uniforms,” adding, “never was blue color more superbly manipulated, not even in Gainsborough’s Blue Boy.”
When, two months after the armistice, the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified by three-quarters of the states, Luks waxed indignant on behalf of the doughboys, doomed to return to a dry America. They should, he told a friend, emulate a Dutch ancestor of his, the skipper of a man-of-war, who, after taking over the navy, sailed home and took Amsterdam.
Around this time, give or take a few years (for a man who talked freely for hours on end about practically anything, Luks was strangely reticent concerning his private life), Emma Louise—Babe—decided she had had enough of her husband coming home drunk or drunk and bruised in a fight or, worst of all, not coming home at all; she divorced him, amicably. Luks’s third and final wife was a tall, slender, and beautiful Cuban woman around half his age named Mercedes Carbonell.
How did Luks, that hard-drinking, improvident quinquagenarian of unsettled habits, manage to corral so desirable a mate? One explanation may be his enduring animal magnetism; the critic Forbes Watson wrote after Luks’s death that the painter was “extremely fond of strong cheese, and his breath smelled like an abattoir after a meal of cheese and a bottle of liquor. Strong as it was, I never saw a woman recoil from his embrace.” Incidentally, the same writer’s notes and his article “George Luks: The Last of the Romantics” contain illuminating glimpses of how the man operated: how he would discourage attempts to take him seriously with wisecracks, how he would spend entire evenings with strangers successfully masquerading as a corporation lawyer; that he painted one of his best-known pictures, The Player, in two hours flat; and that he once turned away a museum director who had stopped by his studio to purchase a picture, explaining that that day was “a drinking day” and inviting him to return on the morrow.
By now Luks was widely recognized and acclaimed as a leading American painter. Honors flowed his way: in 1918 he had received the Temple Gold Medal of the Pennsylvania Academy for Houston Street, New York , and in 1920, the Chicago Art Institute’s Logan Medal; in 1926 he again won the Logan Medal, and in 1932 he received the first Clark Prize of the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington.
Despite the honors, Luks remained an unregenerate natural man. Even after racking up two-thirds of a century of existence, Luks—to the journalist-poet Benjamin DeCasseres “George the Cherub, the old Mad Hatter, the fellow who to the end of his days will hurl [scorn] at the egopomposas and smugmugs who rule this world”—was as combative as ever. One evening early in 1933 at a meeting at the Artists’ Cooperative Market on East Thirty-fourth Street, he had begun making an unscheduled speech about the “foreign art racket” when a heckler spoke up; peeling off his jacket, Luks offered to “lay out” the next person who interrupted him. “You’re not talking to George Luks now,” he continued. “You’re talking to ‘Chicago Whitey,’ the best amateur boxer and barroom fighter in America. You’re talking to Luks the professional quarterback. Don’t make any mistake about that. I’ve lived and I’m still living. You and the rest of these hypocrites are only waiting to die. Stay here and I’ll show you something. If you don’t like my talk, get out, and the sooner and the more of you that go, the better.” And so he went on, raging against the “foreign bimbos who come here to grab off mural and portrait painting jobs that American painters should have. My slats!”
Seven or eight months later the best barroom fighter in America was kayoed for good.
Luks was laid out for burial in a lavish waistcoat much like the ones he had worn long ago in Philadelphia. His funeral was held in a church at Broadway and Sixty-sixth Street, near sundown on October 31, 1933—Halloween. Just before the ceremony, Dr. William Luks, who had patched up his big brother after no one knew how many booze-fueled encounters, entered the church, his widowed sister-in-law Mercedes on one arm and his own wife on the other. Also there with his wife was John Sloan, together with the Glackenses, and the late Maurice Prendergast’s brother Charles, and George Bellows’s widow. And there, too, paying his last respects to a fallen colleague, was Gene Tunney.