Sunday, 30 October 2011


“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance, and this, and not the external manner and detail, is true reality.” – Aristotle

George Benjamin Luks (born August 13, 1867, Williamsport, Pennsylvania, U.S.—died October 29, 1933, New York, New York), one of a group of American painters popularly known as the Ashcan school because of their realistic treatment of urban scenes. The original Eight included Robert Henri, leader of the group, Everett Shinn, John Sloan, Arthur B. Davies, Ernest Lawson, Maurice Prendergast, George Luks, and William J. Glackens. George Bellows later joined them. The group’s determination to bring art into closer touch with everyday life greatly influenced the course of American art.

Luks was born in a coal-mining region of north-central Pennsylvania, and he studied first at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, and later in Germany, London, and Paris. Returning to the United States in 1894, he became an illustrator for the Philadelphia Press. During that period he met the painter and teacher Robert Henri and the newspaper illustrators John Sloan and William J. Glackens. Luks went to Cuba in 1895 as a correspondent artist for the Philadelphia Bulletin during the Cuban struggle for independence from Spain.

After returning to the United States, he worked as a cartoonist, drawing the popular Hogan’s Alley for the New York World. Between 1902 and 1903 Luks lived in Paris, where he not only continued his art studies but also became increasingly preoccupied with the depiction of modern city life. When he returned to New York City, he settled in the bohemian enclave of Greenwich Village and began to paint realistic pictures of New Yorkers; notable examples from this period are “The Spielers” (1905), possibly his best-known work, and “The Wrestlers” (1905).

In 1908, with Henri, Sloan, Glackens, and four other painters, Luks formed a group called The Eight, whose exhibition in New York that year marked a key event in the history of modern painting in the United States. After this event, Luks received the support of art dealers and patrons. He and the other members of The Eight were eventually absorbed into a larger group of artists known as the Ashcan school, which continued the exploration of modern, urban realities. Luks continued to pursue his realistic depictions of urban scenes even while new schools of abstraction began to dominate the New York art world. After teaching at the Art Students League from 1920 to 1924, Luks opened his own art school.

Luks contributed to The Eight exhibition in 1907 and the Armory Show in 1913. Like Robert Henri and John Sloan, Luks identified himself with the poorer classes and the subject matter of his paintings often reflected his attempts to reflect contemporary issues. The term “Ashcan School” that was given to the group Luks identified with was a derogatory one, but which suited the group admirably as it gave their paintings a political and social identifier. After teaching art for many years, Luks died in 1933.

Luks’s painting reflects very much the man: Lusty, tender, brawling, and dignified. An artist with wit, vitality, and talent. Duncan Phillips (art connoisseur and founder of the “The Phillips Collection”) described Luks as “an individualist with a buoyant belief in his own genius and gusto in his copious enjoyments of his chosen subjects...We are reminded of Hals, then of Goya and again of Courbet. But these painters of the past who also wielded their brushes with exhilarating ease and racy personal expression lacked the mischievous irony which is the very autograph of Luks...When in full swing he can paint as well as Courbet, surpassing him in space composition and his rival in rich impasto...”

Luks’s technique balances sharp observation against broad execution. Using sharp contrasts of light and dark that never degenerated into mere silhouettes, he caught the shape and weight of his subjects in a few thick strokes of paint. He made his work look easy, which it was not, and fun to do, which it apparently was. Though he vastly simplified what he saw, none of Luks’s pictures could be called art-for-art’s-sake; he was a reporter in oils with a dramatic flair like that of his contemporaries John Sloan and George Bellows, and like them he regularly suppressed irrelevant details for the sake of a few telling ones.

Illustrated above is “Hester St” from 1905, exemplifying the type of work that Luks was most comfortable with: Street scenes showing the lives and environs of the common people engaged in everyday activities. 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. The work above 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 and social commentator.


  1. What a wonderful artist! I was not aware of his work, thanks for the introduction, Nicholas!

  2. He really is a unique and worthy painter. A very fitting tribute indeed. (and I will now recognise Hester St. in future!).