George Benjamin Luks

(American, 1866 - 1933)

George Luks was born Williamsport, in the heart of Pennsylvania's anthracite coal mining region. His father, an immigrant from Central Europe, was a multi-lingual pharmacist, and his mother was an amateur painter. Luks had a reputation as a boastful, quarrelsome alcoholic who gave distorted accounts of his past, so it is difficult to separate fact from fiction when discussing his life. At an early age the Luks family moved to the neighboring town of Shenandoah, where he painted signs, houses, and wagons that attracted the public's attention. He attended classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for only one month in 1884. Shortly thereafter he went to Europe, where he studied in Dusseldorf and Munich, and visited major museum collections in Paris and London. He returned to Philadelphia and during the early 1890s entered the circle of young artists--William Glackens, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan--who had gathered around Robert Henri and were collectively known as "The Philadelphia Five." He went to Spain in 1892, where he admired the works of Velasquez and Goya. Luks worked as an illustrator for two Philadelphia newspapers, and in 1895 was sent to Havana in order to cover the Cuban revolt against Spain that culminated in the Spanish-American War. He moved to New York in 1896, where he continued to work as an illustrator, and drew a comic strip called "The Yellow Kid" for the New York Journal. He made several trips to Paris during the early 1900s. In 1903 he exhibited with the Society of American Artists. In 1908 he exhibited at the historic show of The Eight at Macbeth Gallery; he had his first solo exhibition there two years later. A member of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, Luks assisted in organizing the Armory Show in 1913. The following year he became an illustrator for Vanity Fair, and began a decade-long affiliation with Kraushaar Gallery that ended in 1925, when he switched to the Frank K. M. Rehn Gallery. By then Luks had established himself as a prolific, well-known artist; he exhibited widely and received numerous awards. He taught at the Art Students League between 1920 and 1924, and later organized his own art school. Luks was found dead in a lower Manhattan street under mysterious circumstances. Luks was a basically self-taught artist who was one of the original members of the so-called Ashcan School. He selected subject matter from lower-class urban life, often painting portraits of street urchins, beggars, and unusual individuals. He was a highly accomplished landscapist. In addition to being active in Boston, Nova Scotia, and Maine, from the early 1920s on Luks made regular trips to his native region, where he painted landscapes and subjects related to the daily life of coal miners. His style was characterized by an unusually dark palette, and a vigorous handling of paint that reflected the influence of Frans Hals, to whom he had been introduced by Henri; he once boasted "There are only two great artists in the world--Frans Hals and George Luks." Like many artists in his immediate circle, Luks became disenchanted with the extremes of European modernism that he had seen at the Armory Show. An advocate of American art, he later railed against "those foreign bimbos who come here to grab off mural and portrait painting jobs that American painters should have." The definitive study of Luks's life and work has yet to be written.