George Luks: An Artistic Legacy



The following essay was written in September, 1997 by Judith Hansen O'Toole for the catalogue of the George Luks exhibition held at Owen Gallery, New York, from October 25 through December 17, 1997.


The son of Eastern European immigrants, George Luks was born in 1866 in the central Pennsylvania logging town of Williamsport. His parents were well educated: his father a physician/apothecary who served the poor, and his mother, schooled in France and Switzerland, practiced the arts and encouraged her family to do the same. The Luks family later moved to the town of Pottsville in the coal fields of Southern Pennsylvania where young George grew up with his five brothers and sisters. While there, his parents did many kind acts to assist the coal miners' families.

Many of Luks's characteristics as a painter were laid out in his childhood. An artist whose impatience could not tolerate the slow, methodical training of the art academies of his time, Luks always depended on his natural talent and strong eye to develop and sustain his style. As a child he followed his mother's lead in enjoying both music and the visual arts but the latter came to him instinctively. He was quick with the pencil and drew prodigiously in his youth. Both parents, but especially his father, demonstrated to Luks the value of the common man and Luks developed a humanist approach to his subject matter which was often tinged with a warm sense of humor.

George Luks prided himself in being the "bad boy" of American art and would be pleased that this notion has survived as his reputation as a significant painter of the twentieth century continues to grow. A heavy drinker and engaged story-teller, Luks manufactured details of his own life to make himself more colorful. Most ingrained in his biography was his tall tale of having fought in the Mid-West as "Chicago Whitey," a middle-weight boxing champion. No one ever checked his details. However, the mythology Luks created around himself masked an insecurity that reveals itself in the diversity of styles he sometimes employed as a painter. His mainstay was realism, but he experimented with impressionism and post-impressionism and was known to alter a canvas if it was criticized, sometimes ruining it entirely. The critic, James Huneker, noted literally hundreds of unfinished canvases in Luks upper Manhattan studio which he would either re-work or paint over. But when Luks was "on" he was a forceful painter of huge talent and confidence, noted for his sure, brilliant handling of a brush.

Before the age of twenty-five, Luks had toured with his brother William in a minstrel act called "Buzzey and Anstock;" dropped out of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Kunstacademie in Dusseldorf; and traveled to Germany, England, and France visiting the great museums of Europe in order to learn from the masters. He returned to the United States in 1890 with the works of Franz Hals, the great Dutchman, foremost in his memory. He would claim Hals as his inspiration (if not his equal) for the rest of his life.

In 1894, Luks joined the staff of newspaper illustrators at the Philadelphia Press having earlier produced a few freelance drawings for such magazines as Puck and Truth. His quick drawing style, eye for detail and fascination with life suited this work. It was here that he met fellow illustrators, John Sloan, William Glackens, and Everett Shinn. In the evenings they gathered at the studio of the charismatic painter and teacher, Robert Hcnri, and became the "Philadelphia Five." Although Luks never publicly acknowledged it, he was profoundly influenced by Henri's philosophy, especially his directive to paint ordinary life and shun the conventional subjects of the genteel tradition. More than any of the Philadelphia Five, with the possible exception of John Sloan, Luks's work embodies this subject matter. He also followed Henri's urging to execute a painting quickly and with great speed. Though not particularly close, the two artists painted each other's portraits; Luks of Henri in 1902 with Henri returning the favor in 1904.

One by one, the "Philadelphia Five" found their way to New York City where they continued to develop their unique perspective on the art world. Luks became an illustrator at the New York World and, subsequently, with the political journal, The Verdict. He shared living quarters with Glackens who later recalled many hilarious evenings during which the two young men tasted the sights of New York and continued to paint during their free time.

Luks walked the streets of lower Manhattan where he found subjects for his paintings everywhere. He was never without a sketch pad and made a great show of filling its pages with scenes of the city around him. Short and somewhat pudgy, with a stray lock of hair always falling over his forehead, Luks developed an ostentatious style of dress which favored flagrant prints, capes, large fedoras and a monocle attached to his vest with a satin ribbon. Calling attention to himself in this manner, he went about befriending the people of the street and painting many of their portraits. The Rag Picker from 1905 is one such example where Luks has captured the ruddy complexion, rough hands, and disheveled dress of an elderly street person. Showing a clear influence from Hals, Luks positioned the rag picker in front of a dark, nondescript background using a palette of earth tones and isolated areas of bright color. Henri's dictum to finish the painting in one sitting is evident in the brushwork and bold, loose handling of paint. Detail is sacrificed to the overall image although the overriding effect of near ruthless realism is not lost. Typical of his enormous ego, Luks used a brilliant red to sign his name, a habit he continued, although not consistently, throughout his life.

Another image of an older woman is The Baroness and Her Cat or The Happy Family which was widely exhibited and reproduced beginning in 1913 when it was shown at the Kraushaar Galleries and illustrated in The New York Times. Obviously a woman past her prime and down on her luck, Luks gives his subject the dignity of a "baroness" and shows her in a warm, playful moment. Luks often showed his female sitters with their pets - Woman with Goose (Whitney Museum of American Art) being a famous example.

Hester Street, with its busy Jewish, open-air markets and bustling street life was prime ground for Luks. He painted several important oils here from numerous sketches, an example of which is the mixed media drawing, Hester Street from 1905. This drawing demonstrates Luks's ability to capture expressions, gestures and background details in a quick, coherent tableaux of everyday life; not a newsworthy scene, but certainly one illustrating Luks's ability as a reporter.

Luks's eye was also caught by such pure landscapes as the city provided, including the wintry lower Hudson River marred by industrial shipping fleets on a bleak, overcast day, as seen in the canvas titled The North River, New York, c. 1910. A visit to Massachusetts produced a refined city view; Copley Square, Boston, painted with a luxuriously heavy brush in a monochromatic palette. Deep shades of blue are used in the buildings, plaza and evening sky while contrasting highlights of gold frame the lighted windows in both the buildings and the oncoming trolley. Activity is confined to the borders and middle of the composition allowing the flat mass of the Copley Square in the foreground, rendered in soft shades of blue, to blend with the deepening black/blue of the sky almost as in a color field painting.

This kind of emerging realism, based on subjects often drawn from the city's grimier side, was later dubbed the "Ash Can School" by an outraged critic; a name which stuck and was even embraced by its practitioners. In 1905, the same year as The Rag Picker, Luks painted what would become an icon to the Ash Can School when he rendered the portraits of two immigrant children dancing a wild jig in each other's arms, blond and brown hair flying, faces caught in wide-mouthed pleasure. The Spielers (Addison Gallery of Art) was hailed as a triumph by critics and artists alike; Shinn called it a "masterpiece of gamin life...which even Franz Hals would have to salute." This painting made Luks's reputation and even nearly a half century later was acknowledged by Time Magazine's art critic as one of his ten favorite American paintings of the twentieth century. Luks would no longer have to work as an illustrator, but could support himself through his painting.

A turning point occurred in American art history when eight artists, led by Robert Henri, exhibited together at Macbeth's Gallery in 1908 in a purposeful and highly publicized attempt to free artists from the tyrannical exhibition policy of the National Academy. Dubbed "The Eight," the artists included the Philadelphia Five, joined by Maurice Prcndergast, Arthur B. Davies, and Ernest Lawson. Stylistically different, the group was united in advocating for exhibition opportunities free from the jury system, in addition to the artist's right to pursue painting techniques that were not sanctioned by the Academy. This was the only formal act in which "The Eight" would participate as a group, but it did much to promote independence from the traditional workings of the American art world. Luks sold his painting, The Pigs, to Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and his work caused a sensation for the duration of the exhibition.

In 1910 Luks did not participate in the first exhibition of the Independents because he was preparing for his first one-man exhibition at the Macbeth Gallery. Three years later he would participate in the seminal International Exhibition of Modern Art, generally referred to as the Armory Show, and join the Kraushaar Gallery for what would become a decade long relationship. In 1911 he joined the American Watercolor Society in New York where he exhibited frequently until his death. Still a surprise to many collectors of American art is Luks's sustained interest and superb ability in watercolors, a medium he worked with in childhood, as a commercial illustrator, and, finally, as a fine artist.

In 1912 Luks and his second wife, Emma, moved from lower Manhattan to a house in the Bronx near High Bridge Park. After swearing never to become an "establishment" artist in a studio with North light, that is precisely what Luks became. He was comfortable in the big house on Jumel Place which offered new subject matter such as middle class children frolicking under the watchful eyes of their nannies and families strolling at leisure in the park. During this time Luks brightened his palette and experimented with a style of post-impressionism that appeared to be influenced by Maurice Prcndergast.

It was also in this decade that Luks established a friendship with the Boston artist and patron, Margarett Sargent. They met while Sargent was working in the Connecticut studio of sculptor Gutzon Borglum during the summers of 1917 and 1918. Margarett made a bust of Luks whom she felt to be not only an outstanding artist but a vital and exciting human being. The two corresponded and Margarett often visited the older artist when she was in New York. It was the following year, in 1919, that Luks painted Margarett's portrait from memory. Luks titled his portrait The White Blackbird, a reference not only to the contrast between his sitter's snowy complexion and the deep black of her bobbed hair but perhaps also an acknowledgment of her complicated personality.. Sargent was said to be devastated at the news of Luks's death in 1933.

The second decade of the twentieth century was good to Luks. He exhibited regularly at Kraushaar Galleries and at various exhibitions around the country, garnering good press coverage and winning honors, including the Hudnut Watercolor Prize from the New York Watercolor Club (1916), the William A. Clark Prize from the Corcoran Gallery of Art (1917), and the Temple Gold Medal at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1918). In addition to being a colorful and opinionated figure, he was also becoming a respected artist. He even became a professor of art when, in 1920, he joined the faculty of the Art Students League where his friend John Sloan was an influential teacher. His tenure, however, was marred by his erratic and temperamental teaching style, including the use of many expletives in his critiques too strong even for the liberal League. Eventually Luks established his own school which he ran in a run-down studio on East 22nd Street until his death in 1933.

This decade also marked the artist's first trip to Nova Scotia. He may have been introduced to this rugged region by the artist Ernest Lawson, a member of The Eight and a frequent visitor to that Eastern Canadian province. The landscape and the distance from civilization seemed to suit Luks, who is shown in one photograph from this trip standing on the rocky shore dressed in fishing gear and looking very much the adventurer. He brought back to New York a stunning series of watercolors which Kraushaar exhibited in 1920. These were praised by the press as a new departure for Luks, who was complimented for turning a new corner in his style rather than settling for the continuation of work that was already meeting with critical acclaim.

In these watercolors, such as The Eddy from 1919, Luks drew with brilliant colors prompted by the sparkling shades of Nova Scotia's waterways. He used high duality watercolor paper and mixed his own colors, including a specific blue that was dazzling to the eye. Layers of color create an extraordinary texture where each color is clearly read through those laid over it. Especially in the rocks, Luks uses unusual and even unnatural colors including red, orange, purple, and brown. There is also a strong sense of patterning in these pieces that borders on decorative abstraction, with Luks taking advantage of close-up views of the water and rocks to disorient the viewer and remove the work from specific references to a scene. His animated brush makes short, brisk marks and arabesque motifs in the swirling water. It seems that the river scenes provided the inspiration which freed Luks to experiment with brush stroke, color, and form in a manner he had never done before. These watercolors are not like the more stylized post-impressionist works from High Bridge Park, but are another generation in Luks's investigations of technique.

When Luks returned to his studio he used these works on paper to create oils, including Climbing the Screecher, which maintained the freshness of technique despite the fact that they were not painted in situ. The Screecher was a favorite area with rapids and large rocks that fascinated Luks during his visit. The huge boulders and flowing waters dwarf the canoeist in the upper right of this piece who is valiantly "climbing" the rapids. The power of nature here seems much greater than man's.

In the early 1920s life became more complicated for George Luks. He divorced his wife and was forced to give up his Jumel Street studio and home to move back to Manhattan. His brother, William, who was a pharmacist and ran a clinic for the city's down-and-out often took in a drunken Luks during the early hours of the morning. Always a robust drinker, Luks became more so as he lost the domesticity provided by his wife and home. The uncertainty of his life can sometimes be seen in his paintings from the early twenties. Little Girl in a Top Hat is a poignant portrait, most probably of a street urchin, a subject he had not tackled in recent years. Her dark eyes are hollow with melancholy but her mouth betrays a vague smile. Luks favored portraits of children throughout his career, showing an almost spiritual link to their fragile, yet playful, egos.

By 1922 Luks had contracted a severe illness and had to recuperate in a sanitarium. The bright spot for him at this time was the fact that Margarett Sargent, now a Boston socialite and the wife of Shaw McKean, allowed him to flee his health and domestic problems to live and paint in her Boston mansion while he got his life in order.

Many works survive from this period in Boston and they reveal an artist who was both looking back to his roots and looking forward in an attempt to incorporate some of the tenets of modernism in his work. Margarett may have been of some influence to Luks in that her own style was heavily influenced in color and geometry by Henri Mattise and other French Fauvist painters whom she collected. Her home had a gallery where Luks would have been free to study.

An impressive oil executed at this time is Swan Boats, one of the few works on canvas to reflect Luks's pointillist technique, this being usually reserved for the translucent medium of watercolor. The trees in the background are very reminiscent of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cczannc, reflecting Margarett's taste. The scene of people at leisure in a city park, American flags flying brightly, looks back again to Prcndergast, as does the staccato brush work. The flickering brush work and layering of color applied to the water in the foreground looks forward to the watercolors Luks would produce a few years later when he painted in the Berkshire Hills. The color red exerts itself far beyond the reach of the reflections from the boats, showing Luks's more emphatic and expressionist use of color.

Two other paintings from this period are Commonwealth Avenue and St. Botolphe's Street, the latter taking its theme from earlier street scenes but rendered with a new, more "updated" style with flat masses of color laid out with a broad brush. In subject, Commonwealth Avenue harks back to the scenes of High Bridge Park with dark-clad nannies supervising scurrying clusters of brightly dressed children; however in this painting Luks is again using a broader brush to map out areas of color and define shapes within the composition.

In 1925, Luks was invited bask to his childhood home of Pottsville, Pennsylvania to complete a mural commissioned for the Necho Allen Hotel. The subject of the mural was to be the discovery of anthracite by the hotel's namesake and the evolving story of the coal industry. This was an ambitious undertaking for Luks, who had never painted on such a large scale before. He settled in for the summer and had a long stream of miners and their families come to his studio as models. The local press ran several stories as the summer progressed, all of them referring to Luks as a returning hero and famous artist in their reports. This attention was just what the artist needed and he responded to his former townspeople with grateful warmth. His drawings, watercolors, and oils from this period portray the empathy Luks felt with the miners his father once served. He sketched them at work and at leisure, later converting some of these images into oil. Miner's Family shows a meditative miner, the head of his household, on the front stoop of his house his wife standing stoically behind him cradling an infant in her arms, and an older girl in a bright yellow dress on the stairs to the shack. Luks's watercolors from this summer, and from a subsequent visit to Pottsville, reveal a continuation of the strength he achieved in Nova Scotia.

Lulls established the George Luks School of Painting in 1925 and continued to be a leading figure in the New York art scene He was interviewed by the press on everything from his opinions of women to the proper way to drink beer. Reviews of his annual shows, now at the Rehn Gallery, were always favorable. He married his third wife, Mercedes Carboncll, a dramatic beauty half his age who had posed for his classes. They had a tumultuous relationship and she left him three years before his death, returning just months before his final demise. He painted her portrait a number of times, the example here, showing the blocky style of his later years where color and shape are substantial elements, more clearly defined and distinct, again as a concession to modernism.

Also in the mid-twenties, Luks purchased an old farm house in the Berkshires near Old Chatham, New York to which he retreated in the summer months. He had a great passion for this farm which was beautifully picturesque in its isolated setting against the blue tinted mountains. Luks came to know and paint the residents while he worked the countryside for antiques with which to furnish his home and subjects with which to inspire his brush. The watercolors of this period are again among the best he ever produced. His mastery of color is fully evoked, employing the brilliant primary colors along with everything in between. His Gas Station, Berkshire Hills, from circa 1925 shows his adventuresome use of color with the background hills alternating in yellow and green and the foreground carried out primarily in the rich blue and green for which his watercolors are noted. The exception is the gas pump and the first floor of the "station," really a converted house, which are rendered in strong yellows and reds.

Luks ended his life with the same passion as he had lived it. In December of 1932 he delivered a diatribe against the modern art world when he had instead been invited to do a portrait demonstration at the Artist's Cooperative Market. Probably in his cups, he spat out a lecture condemning the lack of support American artists had in their own country: where European art was still heavily favored by galleries and collectors. Proclaiming himself to be truly an American artist and proud of it, he brought up his old alter ego of "Chicago Whitey," and was eventually dragged from the stage. In the morning he was extensively quoted in the papers. His combative nature continued, and perhaps worsened, despite his aging body; Iess than a year after his outburst at the Cooperative Market, he died in the early hours of the mooting after a barroom brawl and was found by a policeman, slumped in the doorway of a speakeasy. Although the critics tried to report his death as the result of a heart attack experienced during an early morning drawing session, the real cause was well known. It is ironic that at the end, the press were accomplices in Luks's attempts to alter his biography.

His funeral was well-attended and in the lengthy obituary that appeared in The New York Times on October 10, 1933, the writer noted: "His canvasses were invariably virile; his versatility was astonishing, and he painted as he lived, contemptuous of conventionalities, impatient with snobbishness and full of the joy of life that so many of his paintings reflected."


Biographical information on the author:

Judith Hansen O'Toole is currently the Director/CEO of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, a post she assumed in 1993. The museum's collections and exhibitions reflect her expertise in 19th and 20th century American Art. Prior to that O'Toole was Director of the Sordoni Art Gallery, Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, from 1982-1993.

O'Toole has organized exhibitions on George Luks, Carl Sprinchorn and other artists and groups of the early 20th century. She has published in the field of American Art in journals, museum catalogs, and in 1992 her book on the 19th century still-life painter, Severin Roesen, was published by Bucknell University Press. She is widely consulted on works by Severin Roesen and George Luks. She serves as a reviewer for the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and is a frequent lecturer on European and American art. She has lectured at such places at Sotheby's, New York; The National Gallery, Washington, D.C.; and the College Art Association (NYC). Her collaborations for exhibitions have included the Delaware Art Museum (Wilmington); the Canton Art Institute (Canton, Ohio); and the National Portrait Gallery (District of Columbia).

In 1993, O'Toole was cited by Art News in a listing of nationally recognized American scholars; her work in museums has been recognized by the American Associations of Museums; and her contributions to community cultural awareness won her the Spectrum Award from National Public Radio affiliate WVIA-FM (Scranton/Wilkes-Barre) in 1991.

O'Toole has served on the Museum Panel for the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts; is on the board of the Pennsylvania Federation of Museums and Historical Organizations; the Middle Atlantic Association of Museums; the United Way and the Central Westmoreland Chamber of Commerce.

O'Toole resides in Greensburg with her husband Kevin O'Toole, who is a sculptor and their two daughters, Sarah and Rachel.


Selected articles (10 of 100) mentioning George Luks from this magazine:

Ms. O'Toole's essay is courtesy of the Owen Gallery, 19 East 75th Street, New York, New York and the author.

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/23/11

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