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George Benjamin Luks

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George Benjamin Luks
(Williamsport, Pennsylvania, 1867 - 1933, New York, New York)

The paintings of George Luks, like those of his associates Robert Henri and John Sloan, illustrate the life of turn-of-the-twentieth-century New Yorkers, especially the common people who thrived in immigrant-filled neighborhoods such as the Lower East Side. In choosing such themes, Luks set himself on a divergent path from the art establishment of his time and helped to introduce a mode of realism that was firmly rooted in American urban culture. Along with his colleagues in the group known as The Eight (sometimes called the Ashcan School), Luks depicted his subjects with a strong sense of compassion and understanding, finding dignity in the faces of the poor, old and young. Luks’s wellspring of creativity originated in his substantial disrespect for the status quo. Although he came from an artistic family, he was largely self-taught, having received only a minimum of formal art training before he became a newspaper illustrator for the "Philadelphia Press".(1) In 1896 Luks moved to New York City, where he drew a comic strip for the New York World, worked as a free-lance illustrator, and later created the comic strip "The Yellow Kid". (2) Influenced and encouraged by William Glackens (1870–1938), Luks took up painting full-time in 1898. He established himself fairly quickly, and within a few years he could support himself solely through the sale of his paintings, although he continued to do occasional freelance illustration work throughout his career. In 1920 Luks began teaching, first at the Art Students League, and then, in 1924, at his own school. Despite heavy drinking, an increasingly wild lifestyle, and three failed marriages, he managed to sustain a successful painting career into the early 1930s, even winning a Corcoran Gold Medal in 1932. In 1933, however, he was fatally injured in a barroom fight and was found dead in a doorway on Sixth Avenue. Luks painted in both oil and watercolor, and his background in illustration and cartooning made him extremely deft with pen and ink, pencil, and charcoal. (3) His palette tended toward rich but dark tones, accented by touches or small patches of bright color. (4) Later in his career, he began to experiment with the brighter, more vibrant hues of Post-Impressionism. Luks's forms are generally monochromatic masses established with broad, visible brushstrokes; short strokes and dabs of paint over the larger shapes suggest detail. His use of distortion to heighten the expressiveness of figures and faces contributes a dramatic immediacy to his works. Because of the rough, gestural nature of Luks’s brushwork, the surfaces of his paintings convey a distinct impression of the artist's hand in action.

(1) Both of Luks’s parents painted, one sister sang professionally, one brother played the violin, and the second brother worked in vaudeville. In 1883 Luks began studying with Thomas Anshutz (cat. no. 30) at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, but he quit after one term. He studied briefly in Düsseldorf in 1889, but was probably more inspired by studying the work of old masters such as Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), Frans Hals (1581/85–1666), and Francisco de Goya (1746–1828) than by his instructors.

(2) The strip was also later known as Hogan's Alley and McFadden's Flats. See Rebecca Zurier, “The Making of Six New York Artists,” in Rebecca Zurier, Robert W. Snyder, and Virginia M. Mecklenburg, Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and Their New York (Washington, DC, New York, and London: National Museum of American Art in association with W. W. Norton and Company, 1995), pp. 65–66.

(3) Luks is reported to have been able to draw with both hands at once; see Bennard B. Perlman, Painters of the Ashcan School: The Immortal Eight (New York: Dover Publications, 1979), p. 65.

(4) This dark palette reflects the influence of the works of Hals and Rembrandt (1606–1669), whom Luks credited as major influences on his art.

American Paintings from the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, cat. no. 46, p. 124.

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