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GEORGE BENJAMIN LUKS, born on August 13, 1867, in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, was a leading figure in the New York art world in the early part of the 20th century.  Known primarily for his social-realist paintings and illustrations, he advocated, along with several of his contemporaries, a philosophy of painting which challenged the traditional approaches advanced at the time by the National Academy of Design and the established art-circles in America.

Luks’ parents were amateur painters, and encouraged their son’s innate talent, providing him with his earliest artistic instruction.  The family moved to Pottsville, in southern Pennsylvania’s coal-mining territory, when Luks was still a child, and he learned at a young age about the effects of poverty on its victims.  His parents (his father was a physician) tried to help the coal-miners’ families, going so far as to support a group known as the ‘Molly Maguires’, a secret organization of Irish-Americans that tried to improve conditions for the area’s miners.  This exposure presumably had an effect on Luks’ work, which often displayed ‘down and out’ people in naturalistic settings.

Luks’ earliest job was in vaudeville.  He and his brother played the Pennsylvania and New Jersey vaudeville circuits while still in their teens.  But he left performing to pursue a career as an artist, having known from a young age that art was the direction toward which he was headed.  At the age of seventeen he enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, studying under Thomas Anshutz, but his rebellious nature resisted the rigors of formal study, and he withdrew after a short stay.  Traveling to Europe, he attended several art schools, including the Dusseldorf (Germany) School of Art, before abandoning Dusseldorf for what he considered to be the more stimulating spheres of Paris and London.  While in Europe he became inspired by the work of Valazquez, Manet, Rembrandt, Van Steen, Renoir, and particularly the Dutch Master, Frans Hals.

In 1894 Luks returned to America, eventually joining the staff of the Philadelphia Press as an illustrator.  He moved into a one-room flat with fellow illustrator Everett Shinn.  Working at that newspaper, Luks also met the artists John Sloan and William Glackens.  These men began to gather for weekly meetings, social as well as intellectual, at the studio of Robert Henri, a noted painter who was several years their senior, and who encouraged his younger friends to consider the need for a new style of painting, one that would speak to the needs of their own time and experience.  Chafing at the limitations imposed by the conservative art establishment, Henri was a persuasive advocate for the vigorous depiction of ordinary life; he believed American painters needed to shun genteel subjects and academic polish and learn to paint more rapidly.  He also believed artists of this period needed to expand the breadth of their knowledge by familiarizing themselves with certain types of literature, and encouraged the group to read the work of writers such as Whitman, Emerson, Zola, and Ibsen, as well as William Morris Hunt’s Talks on Art and George Moore’s Modern Painting.  Henri and his acolytes, replete with their new, radical ideas for the direction of American art, collectively became known as the Philadelphia Five. 

In 1896, the Press sent Luks to Cuba to cover the Spanish-American War as a correspondent/war artist.  Upon returning to America he moved to New York City, where he joined the staff of the New York World and began to draw the comic strips, The Yellow Kid and Hogan’s Alley.  While drawing the strips Luk began to devote more time to developing his painting skills, and in 1902 he abandoned newspaper work to devote all his energies to painting.  Most of the canvases from this period specialize in portraits of members of the working class (though they include docks and bridges as well), his interest in this subject-matter certainly influenced by the dynamics of his Philadelphia Five experience, and perhaps piqued by his childhood rearing in coal-mining country, as well as his experiences as a newspaper illustrator.  These social-realist paintings, consisting mainly of depictions of street urchins, rag-pickers, wrestlers, peddlers, shopkeepers, and beggars, are executed with an immediacy, honesty, and richness that has been compared to the work of Frans Hals.  Some of Luks’ best-known work from this era captures the lives of the occupants of the tenement districts of New York, particularly the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  Paintings such as Hester Street (1905, in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum), Allen Street (1905) and Houston Street (1917) fall into this category.  Two other famous works also come from this period; the year 1905 saw Luks produce The Spielers and The Wrestlers.  In The Spielers (in the collection of the Addison Gallery of American Art) two young girls dance frenetically, their joyous faces forming a contrast to their grimy hands; In The Wrestlers (in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston), one beefy man has been pinned to the mat by another, the paint reflecting the sweat and strain of the match.  As Luks’ friend Everett Shinn put it: “Sentimental or otherwise, he always painted the truth, as he saw it.”  This dedication to the truth, to an art more directly related to everyday experience, and to depicting in a realistic fashion the rougher and grittier aspects of modern life, was the object of a group which grew out of the original precepts of The Five, and of which Luks became a member; collectively known as The Eight, it was comprised of the original Philadelphia Five, with the addition ofArthur B. Davies, Ernest Lawson, and Maurice Prendergast.  Their works, by and large, adopted rich, dark tonalities inspired by the art and techniques of Rembrandt, Manet, and Franz Halls.  Because of their dark palettes and preference for what at the time was considered to be ‘coarser’ subject-matter, The Eight eventually became known as the Ashcan School.  The rejection of many of their paintings, including works by Luks, from the exhibitions of the powerful, conservative National Academy of Design motivated The Eight to form their own short-lived exhibiting group.  Their exhibition at the MacBeth Galleries in New York in January, 1908 was a significant event in the promotion of twentieth-century American art.  The group was unified by a belief in exhibition opportunities free of the jury system, as well as a belief in content and painting techniques not necessarily sanctioned by the Academy.  The show challenged the artistic status-quo and created a sensation among conservative and official art circles in America. Following the New York show John Sloan organized a traveling exhibition that brought their paintings to Chicago, Indianapolis, Toledo, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Bridgeport, and Newark, and which helped promote a national debate about the new realism that the Ashcan School represented.  Luk’s paintings Feeding the Pigs and  Mammy Groody were seen as examples of this new ‘earthiness’ that many art lovers were not yet ready to accept.  Ultimately, though, the Ashcan School  successfully challenged academic art institutions, and during the 1910s the authority of the National Academy of Design as a cultural arbiter began to decline.  At a time when the realist fiction of Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris was gaining a wider audience, and when muckraking journalists were calling attention to slum conditions in American cities, the Ashcan painters played a vital role in enlarging the nation’s sense of what were to be considered suitable topics for free artistic expression. 

In addition to the Macbeth show, Luks’ works were exhibited at other contemporaryvenues, including the National Arts Club (1904) and the famous Armory Show of 1913, where six of his paintings were displayed.  After his death in 1933, many exhibitions followed, including a solo show at the Newark Museum (1933), the Whitney Museum (1937, The New York Realists), the Brooklyn Museum of Art (1943, The Eight), the Brooklyn Museum (1992, Painters of a New Century: The Eight and American Art), the Canton Museum of Art (1994, George Luks: The Watercolors Rediscovered), the National Museum of American Art (1995, Metropolitan Lives:  The Ashcan Artists and Their New York), the Owen Gallery (New York, 1997), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2000, City Life Around The Eight), the New York Historical Society (2007, Life’s Pleasures: The Ashcan Artists Brush with Leisure, 1895-1925), and the Milwaukee Art Museum (2009, The Eight andAmerican Modernisms).

Although Luks is most well known for his depictions of New York City life, he also painted landscapes and portraits and was an accomplished watercolorist.  In later years he painted society portraits (e.g., Society Girl).  His style was not entirely uniform throughout his career; The Cafe Francis (1906) contains more impressionist touches than his usual dark scenes of lower-class urban life, and there are several landscapes of the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts that are executed in the Impressionist tradition.  In addition to the Berkshires, Luks, primarily a city dweller, traveled to the island of Bermuda (ca. 1915), where he may have produced a watercolor of a moongate and gardens that was exhibited in 1916 at the New York Watercolor Club.  His interest in Bermuda extended to his execution of a pen and pencil drawing that depicts a scene on the famous Pier 47 on the Hudson River in New York, in which a sign in the foreground belonging to the Quebec Steamship Company advertises the destination “Bermuda & the West Indies”, while a steamship waits in preparation in the background. 

Like his mentor Henri and friend Sloan, Luks was also a teacher, first at the Art Students League on West 57th Street in Manhattan and, later, across the street at a school he established himself, which remained open until the time of his death.  One student, the painter Elsie Dreggs, remembered him as a charismatic force in the classroom.  He enjoyed the adulation of his pupils and was reputedly quite a raconteur.  He was not interested in preaching the tenets of Modernism; his commitment was to realism and direct observation. Given to hyperbolic statements and often intentionally vague about autobiographical details, he preferred to maintain an aura of self-mythologizing mystery.  He was equally at home at a prize fight or a tavern as at a museum or a gallery.  Always a heavy drinker, his friend and one-time roommate William Glackens often had to undress him and put him into bed following a night of drunken debauchery.  Yet he was also known as a man with a kind heart who befriended people living on the edge, often using them as subjects for his paintings.  Some examples of this tendency are the Widow McGee (1902) and The Old Duchess and The Rag Picker (both of 1905), in which Luks depicted elderly, down-and-out women who were victims of ‘life on the street’.   He was a true paradox: a man of enormous egotism, but with a great generosity of spirit.  Ironically, he himself ultimately became a victim of ‘the street’, beaten to death on the night of October 29, 1933 following a bar room brawl.  He was buried in an eighteenth century embroidered waistcoat - one of his most valued possessions - at Fernwood Cemetery in Royersford, Pennsylvania.

Today, Luks’ work is found in many important private and public collections, including the Addison Gallery of American Art (Andover, Massachusetts), the Barnes Museum (Merion, Pennsylvania), the Brooklyn Museum, the Chattanooga Art Association (Tennessee), the Cleveland Art Museum, the Delgado Museum (New Orleans), the Detroit Art Institute, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the Milwaukee Art Institute, the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute (Utica, New York), the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston), the National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.), the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, D.C.), the New York Public Library, the Phillips Gallery (Washington, D.C.), and the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York).

Written November 2014 by Brian Flon, author of "Hell's Kitchen Requiem" (2014), available as an e-book at Amazon, ITunes, and Barnes & Noble.

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