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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

George Luks

George Luks, by Robert Henri
Did you ever know anyone with such a natural drawing and painting ability that every move they made looked good? As artists, all of us probably have better than usual eye-hand coordination, but there are always a few with so much of it that everything they do looks completely effortless. While most of us labor at our work (which all too often looks labored when finished) these people whip out a few strokes, daub on a little color, seem to be having the time of their life, and finish with a masterpiece every time with about the same lavish movements one might expect in painting the side of a barn (a real barn, not a painting of a barn). Don't ya just hate people like that? Often of course, such carefree, effortless renderings are the results of long, hard nights and days of study and practice. But there are a few rare birds out there where this is not the case. In fact, one of them is fondly remembered as boasting, "I'm George Luks and I'm a rare bird! You people stick with me and you'll have a good time."

The Cafe Francis, 1906, George Luks 
George was rare all right. He had a grand total of about four weeks of art school in his whole life, one month when he decided to attend classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1884. That was it, although he often was in the habit of hopping a boat to Europe on the spur of the moment where he seems to have enjoyed the nightlife as much as the museums. There too, however, he enjoyed Frans Hals, proclaiming, "There are only two great artists in the world--Frans Hals and little old George Luks!" He had that right. His work is so often compared to that of Hals even he probably grew tired of it. However in the 1906 painting, The Cafe Francis, we see not Hals, but much more the influence of Renoir, and his fellow Ashcan illustrator and friend, William Glackens' Chez Mouquin painted the year before. It's even the same gentleman in both paintings, the boisterous New York playboy, James Moore with one of his so-called "daughters."

Pals, 1907, George Luks
Of course we know Luks far more for his dark palette and his Frans Hals portraits of very common street people such as his 1907 Pals depicting what we could call today a "bag lady" and her colorful macaw. Here is Luks at his best, so much like Hals and his famous Malle Babbe (1630) portrait of a robust bar "maid" with her coffeepot-size tankard and pet owl on her shoulder, as to easily be a companion piece. Despite his lack of formal training, Luks worked as an illustrator for the Philadelphia Bulletin, and even sometimes as a cartoonist, both of which traits can easily be seen in his work. A cohort of "Ashcanners" Robert Henri, John Sloan, Everett Shinn, and Glackens, he followed them from Philadelphia to New York where he established his painting career, exhibiting with them under the infamous label, "The Group of Eight," as they fought the same academic dominance as had the French Impressionists some twenty-five years before. A participant in the equally infamous Armory Show of 1913, he later won prestigious awards from the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the same Pennsylvania Academy where he'd ever-so-briefly attended classes. In addition to his art, Luks' drinking and brawling made him something of a legendary figure in that sense too. He's said to have died in the doorway of a New York bar, at the age of 67, having grown much too old for such a lifestyle. The press reported he had a heart attack while waiting to paint "the dawn's early light" in the city streets.

George Luks the cartoonist, 1899.

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