George Luks, Ya Big Galoot

George Luks, "The Wrestlers", 1905

George Luks (pronounced Lewks) had a colorful life from a young age. Born in Pennsylvania in 1867 to Central European immigrants, he and his brother performed vaudeville until Luks decided to pursue art. He bounced around the US and Europe, even living with a relative in Germany who was purported (possibly by Luks) to be a lion tamer.

Luks eventually arrived in Philadelphia, where he formed a strong bond with a group of other artists, most notably William Glackens, John Sloan, and Robert Henri (pronounced HEN-rye). The slightly older Henri informally took on the role of teacher to the younger men, suggesting books to read, and encouraging a realistic art with a contemporary, American outlook. At the turn of the 20th century, that meant the Industrial Revolution, specifically the city and all its grit.

New York City was a muse. Ethnic neighborhoods (like Luks’ own Lower East Side) offered subjects like immigrant families, outdoor markets, underground sporting events, and the like. These unpolished, active subjects inspired a faster painting approach, and not surprisingly, the artworks they inspired were consistently rejected from juried exhibitions. A group of artists who called themselves The Eight (its most famous members were Luks, Henri, Maurice Prendergast, John Sloan, and Arthur B. Davies) held the first American non-juried show. They (and others working with similar themes) were eventually better-known as the Ashcan School, named after the metal garbage can, but that name wasn’t coined until the 1930s.

Luks was a character and a study in contrasts. He was indebted to Henri’s teachings, and the support of his fellow artists, but maintained that he was a self-made man. He was ostentatiously masculine, yet he sensitively painted women, the elderly, children, and the poor. He actively mythologized himself as an artist, but for all his bluster and self-serving demeanor, he genuinely befriended many of his subjects, who were fragile in their own ways, beaten down by city life.

Luks was an alcoholic, and died after a bar fight in 1933 in New York City.