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May 2024
17min read

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.

Probing westward along the streets of Manhattan, the first light of Sunday, October 29,1933, revealed, stretched out in a doorway on Sixth Avenue, near Fifty-second Street, under the el, a well-dressed elderly man, solidly built and balding, with a little patch of fine white hair, an inverted triangle, at the center of his forehead. He was dead. Letters in an inside jacket pocket identified him as George B. Luks, the artist, of 140 East Twenty-eighth Street, and an examination of his corpse established that he had been felled by a heart attack. Most of the dead man’s friends assumed, on learning of his death, that he had met his end in a drunken brawl. This assumption was consistent with the hour of his demise and with its location in a district filled with speakeasies (Prohibition had five weeks left to run), but as no autopsy was performed, people could interpret the available data in whatever way they chose, the author of Luks’s profile in the Dictionary of American Biography, for one, solemnly asserting that the painter had been struck down “as he was studying the effect of the sunrise on a typical New York scene.”

So perished, at sixty-seven, a man about whom the critic James Gibbons Huneker of the New York Sun had written that “it is absolutely impossible to pin down on paper any adequate description of him. He is Puck. He is Caliban. He is Falstaff. He is a tornado. He is sentimental. He can sigh like a lover and curse like a trooper. Sometimes you wonder over his versatility: a character actor, a low comedian, even a song-and-dance man, a poet, a profound sympathizer with human misery and a human orchestra. The vitality of him!”

Today Luks is chiefly remembered as one of The Eight, unconventional painters who effectively broke the stranglehold on American taste in art exerted for decades by custodians of the genteel tradition in the ranks of the National Academy of Design. His best canvases, instinct with life, still move viewers, and a few are ranked by some connoisseurs as masterpieces of genre painting.

George Benjamin Luks was born on August 13, 1866—as he put it, “just about the time our god-damn Congress was trying to bash Andy Johnson out of office”—in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, the third surviving child of Emil Charles and Bertha von Kraemer Luks. He grew up southeast of Williamsport in grimy, coal-mining Shenandoah. Both his physician father and his mother were of German extraction, but George, evidently opting for a pedigree more closely reflecting his preferences in art of the past, would later claim to be of French, Dutch, and Bavarian descent.

Dr. Luks was a clever draftsman, and Mrs. Luks liked to paint, and they recognized and encouraged George’s early inclination toward art. When the boy finished high school, Luks père packed him off to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and then sent him abroad to study at the famous old art academy of Düsseldorf. As circumstances permitted, George traveled around Western Europe visiting museums and familiarizing himself with the old masters, including three whose works appealed to him particularly strongly: Hals, Rembrandt, and Cranach. At last he settled down, in London and Paris, to study under a succession of teachers, “from whom I never learned anything, always excepting Renoir, who is great any way you look at him.”

So passed as many as ten Wanderjahre. Just when the wanderer made it back to his native shore is problematical, but by early 1894 he was employed by the Philadelphia Press as an artist-reporter, dashing around the city to record, in rapid pencil strokes, train wrecks and traffic accidents, fires and floods, strikes, trials, and the scenes of murders, suicides, and robberies, then hurrying back to the office to work up finished pen-and-ink drawings for the waiting photoengraver. Away from work he shared an apartment with another novice Press artist just seventeen years old, one Everett Shinn.

Luks entered a bar “like a tank with a child at the wheel.”

Luks and Shinn were an odd duo, and not only because of the decade’s difference in their ages. Although both stood about five and a half feet tall, the stocky Luks must have had fifty pounds on his skinny roommate, and while the latter never under any circumstances touched liquor, the former guzzled it happily in any form whenever it was handy. Even so, the two got along splendidly. In addition to a lively interest in women, they possessed in common a passion for clothes, Shinn later recalling that Luks favored “shadow plaids of huge dimensions, the latest word in suburban realty maps,” and that “vests … were featured, cream-colored corduroy, like doormats laid out in strips of a hawser’s thickness.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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