The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

August 13, 2016

August 13, 1867

George Luks, (August 13, 1867 to October 29, 1933) was an American painter. He is grouped with the Ashcan school of artists who focused on the grittier aspects of city living. Here is one of his paintings which may not seem typical.

The slum child below is what we think of as typical of the Ashcan School.

You see the same blue eyes in both canvases.

Luks did not just reject the traditional subjects for artists, he rejected the slogans of art schools. He said:

Technique did you say? My slats! . . . it’s in you or it isn’t. Who taught Shakespeare technique? Guts! Life! Life! That’s my technique.” This quote is from George Luks: An American Artist, (1987) which has multiple authors.

The painting of the child above sold for over a million dollars in 2014. So who was George Luks? He was the son of immigrant parents; his father was born in Poland and his mother was from Bavaria.

A recent article summarizes an interesting perspective.

...Luks was the bad boy artist of his era, a brawler and boozer who loved nothing more than to light into the smarty-pants set.

In one headline example, he called art patrons suckers during a drunken lecture at the Artists’ Cooperative Market in Manhattan in 1932.

“This country has been imposed upon by French superior salesmanship,” Luks growled. “It is the victim of cheap little lawyers who become diplomats, and financiers who let their wives buy pictures from dealers who perfume them with bombast and saddle them with trash.”

This assessment came after Luks had been painting for nearly 30 years, and

.... by 1930 his works hung in many fine museums, including the Metropolitan and the Whitney in New York.

Success hadn’t changed his saloon habits. Nor had Prohibition. He was drawn, like a bumblebee to nectar, to the speakeasies of Swing Street, W. 52nd near Sixth Ave.

[I]n Luks’ time W. 52nd was lined with brownstones where the right knock got passage into more than a dozen bars, including the Onyx Club, Leon and Eddie’s, Jack and Charlie’s 21 Club and a six-pack of plain-label Irish joints.

Late at night on Oct. 28, 1933, Luks took his customary stroll uptown from his apartment at 140 E. 28th St. It was 39 days before America gave Prohibition the heave-ho.

At sunrise the next morning, a cop found a lump lying in a doorway under the old Sixth Avenue el, just around the corner from Swing Street.

It was George Luks, dead at age 66.

The Daily News said he was found a few hours “after telling his wife, Mercedes, that he would walk and watch the daybreak over the skyscrapers of the city he loved.”

A broadsheet said it was “ascertained” that Luks died of hardening of the arteries.

Luks’ brother William, a New York physician, dictated the narrative of the painter’s death. He said his brother had a heart condition and suggested death occurred during a pastoral stroll.

“He often took long walks in the early hours,” William Luks said, “and it was the way he would have wished to die.”

There was no autopsy.

Years later, Ira Glackens, son of Luks’ Ashcan crony and barstool buddy William Glackens, revealed a much different version of the death on Swing Street.

In a 1957 biography of his father, Glackens said the mouthy artist was knocked cold in a barroom brawl. The illegal joint could hardly report a drunken row, so Luks — dead or nearly so — probably was carried to the spot where cops found him.

The lethal bar fight anecdote has been repeated as gospel in museum catalogs and art history books, ...

However there seems to be little actual documentation of the bar brawl story. Luks would not have minded that his death was a mystery.  

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