Editor's note: The following catalogue essay with associated texts was reprinted in Resource Library on November 24, 2008 with permission of the author and the Canton Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Canton Museum of Art directly: at 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio 44702 or through either this phone number or web address:
George Luks: The Watercolors Rediscovered
by Judith Hansen O'Toole
George Luks, the enfant terrible of American painting, would be pleased with his surviving reputation as the chronicler of the grittier side of American life. His images of beggar women and street urchins from the height of his "Ash Can" days at the turn of the Twentieth Century are social and cultural statements in addition to being important works of art. These paintings, which his contemporaries found shocking and crude, are to modern eyes powerful records of everyday life. Admiration for his brusque painting style and sure draftsmanship have further supported Luks's reputation as a significant figure in American painting. His importance to the realist movement has been clearly documented through books, catalogs and exhibitions dedicated to the subject, and his place in American art history is well established.
This recognition has been gained primarily on the body of work Luks executed in oils -- the medium for which he is best known. But he was also a dedicated watercolorist; it was the first medium in which he worked and one which he continued to use until his late years. Some have felt that these watercolors reflect a less serious side of the artist. Often they are considered to be sketches made as a preliminary step to his oils and therefore secondary in importance. However, this is contrary to the immediate and spontaneous manner in which Luks worked, and in neither medium did he consciously prepare preliminary sketches.
This exhibition demonstrates that Luks considered his watercolor paintings to be finished works and that their techniques and subjects are consistent with and parallel to his works on canvas. It will also reveal that the common link between the two media, and indeed the common thread in all of Luks' diverse production, is the artist's pursuit of realism.
Watercolor painting is an ancient medium dating back to prehistoric times. However, it was not until the nineteenth century that watercolors began to aspire to the stature of oils in the hierarchy of artistic media. Watercolor painting began to thrive in the eighteenth century in England. By the following century, J. M. W. Turner developed a direct style of applying the watercolor to paper which differed from the more common method of using watercolors as a second step to add interest to line drawings in pencil or ink. Turner is one of the few artists throughout history to work in both oil and watercolor on the same level, and inspired generations of artists to come, including many Americans.
Luks began his artistic career working as an illustrator at the Philadelphia Press, where artists were needed to record news events before the photograph could be inexpensively applied to this purpose. It was there, from around 1892 - 95, that he met fellow artists William Glackens, Everett Shinn and John Sloan, who, along with Robert Henri, would form the core of "The Eight" over a decade later in New York. Already a humanitarian through his upbringing in the ethnic communities of Williamsport, Shenandoah, and Pottsville, Pennsylvania, where his father was both a country doctor and pharmacist, Luks was an avid observer of the human condition with sympathies toward the downtrodden. His work on the Press provided further exposure to the study of the human condition, often focusing, as news events are apt to do, on tragic events.
Luks had been prodigious with pencil and paper since childhood and had developed a quick eye-hand coordination perfectly suited to recording events as they were breaking. He was never without a sketch book which he filled with drawings of men at work, children at play, old men on benches, and whatever else caught his curious eye. These sketches were often executed in pencil or conte crayon and later transferred into pen and ink with wash in preparation for printing, though he bragged that his "street" drawings rarely needed to be re-worked once rendered. The strokes of his pencil were controlled and certain while at the same time being energetic and quick. Showing a unique ability, Luks' accuracy and confidence translated easily to success in the watercolor medium where mistakes and reconsiderations are not as readily covered as they might be in oils.
A few original watercolors and illustrations survive from Luks' first overseas assignment when he was sent to Cuba in 1895 to cover the rebellion. The assignment was cut short when he was fired by his employer, the Evening Bulletin (Philadelphia), for doing most of his drawings after oral accounts heard in the safe haven of a saloon rather than from riskier but more accurate first-hand field observation.
Upon returning to the United States in 1896, Luks moved to New York City, along with the others of his Philadelphia group. Once there he was hired to draw a comic strip for the New York World in imitation of another strip, the "Yellow Kid," originated by Richard Outcault for a rival paper, the World. The hero was a precocious street urchin who roamed Hogan's Alley, an inner city neighborhood, in a yellow nightshirt. Luks wrote the story line and drew the cartoon in ink and colored washes.
By this time Luks was supporting himself through his newspaper work, although it was not full time. Robert Henri, who had been the group's leader in Philadelphia, was among others in New York to encourage Luks to take up oil painting. Though Luks never studied with Henri, who was an acknowledged, charismatic teacher, he was the one of the original Philadelphia Five to most closely follow Henri's methodology throughout his own artistic career. This was in part because the two men shared both a passionate temperament and an interest in humanity. Henri taught his students to "[w]ork with great speed. Have your energies alert, up and active. Finish as quickly as you can....In one minute if you can." He further advised artists to paint contemporary subjects close to home rather than seek out exotic or lofty themes as was the preference of the traditional academies. These were two lessons Luks had already learned from his work on the newspaper as he himself noted: "[D]oing newspaper work gives an artist unlimited experience, teaches him life, brings him out."
Perhaps the greatest known American watercolorist, Winslow Homer (1836 - 1921) also started as an illustrator. Thirty years Luks' senior, Homer was, like Luks, without formal training in art and developed his realist style through the careful observation of life. Homer began working in earnest in watercolors in his mid-thirties and settled in Maine where he chronicled the rugged way of life among the fishermen and their families. He developed a direct approach with the medium, using washes over which he could build up greater detail. Because Luks was "notoriously self appreciative," as one anonymous critic described him in Town and Country (1923), it is impossible to say whether or not the work of other artists, such as Homer, might have influenced his style. However, comparisons can be made in both the technique and subject chosen by Homer and Luks. Though each presented scenes of human existence which held great potential for sentimentality, both avoided this pitfall.
Early examples of Luks as a watercolorist include Soda Water Man (pg. no. 20) and Ice Wagon (pg. no. 17) which are classic subjects of the "Ash Can" school. They are rendered in the somber palette used by the artist during his first decade in New York City, when he was painting the working poor of Manhattan's Lower East Side. Figures and buildings emerge from washes of brown and black/grey with only touches of color to alleviate the overall darkness. In Soda Water Man, the bright yellow doorway on the far left margin creates a welcoming pool of light for the delivery man and the bright green carton he shoulders -- the only other spot of color in the piece.
Also of this period is the humorous One-Armed Lunch (pg. no. 23) which shows an elderly woman in a comically feathered hat, balancing a tray of food in one hand and a suitcase and overcoat in the other. Rather than being pathetic, Luks' character exudes an admirable and fierce determination, evidence of the artist's good nature and interest in the best qualities of human nature.
Later works show that Luks continued to be interested in this subject matter throughout his artistic life. The Clinic (pg. no. 18) and Old Man (pg. no. 22) were executed in the waiting room of his brother Will's infirmary, the Northern Dispensary, a triangular building wedged at the corner of Waverly Place and Grove Street in Greenwich Village. Luks' brother and his family lived on the third floor of the Dispensary and George would often stay with them when he had a late night on the town. The portrait of the old man is said to have been executed with pigments made from medicines handy at the clinic, mixed with water and laid on paper with cotton swabs. This is evidence of the artist's spontaneity, ingenuity and innate drive to render images. (Indeed, Luks once claimed he could paint with a shoe string dipped in pitch and lard.) The resulting portrait is exceedingly expressive, the old man's features showing both the boredom of his wait and the concern brought on by illness.
Luks gave up newspaper illustration as his reputation as a painter generated more sales and thus more financial support. His participation in the famous exhibition of "The Eight" at the MacBeth Gallery in 1908 was followed by a one-man exhibition at the same gallery in 1910. Not wanting to conflict with his one-man showing, Luks chose not to participate in the first Independent Show organized by John Sloan and others the same year. He did, however, participate in the Armory Show in 1913 despite having his first one-man show with C. W. Kraushaar, his new dealer, opening on its heels.
The Armory Show, as the International Exhibit of Modern Art was dubbed, was meant to show "progressive" styles of art to what the organizers felt was a conservative American art public. Intended to place American artists in an international context, it instead caused them to be overshadowed by the bold accomplishments of their European counterparts, especially those of the Post-Impressionists, Fauves, and Cubists. Critics noted that American art would never be the same again, and indeed it seemed it would not be. The pointillist brush work of the Post-Impressionists combined with the heightened color of the Fauves were particular influences on Luks and others. Works by Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, Henri Matisse and Andre Derain, exploded with a freedom of concept and execution that made the "Rebels on 8th Street" look conservative.
At about the same time, Luks moved with his second wife, Emma Louise Noble, from an apartment in Greenwich Village to a large house/studio at High Bridge Park. Located at the corner of Gamble Place and Edgecombe Road, it had been built as a combined studio and residence. The 23 x 16 foot studio had large windows facing North and a view of High Bridge Park. James Huneker, a contemporary writer and critic who had dubbed the artists of The Eight "devotees of the ugly," noted that with the plenitude of pleasant models, "babies, goats, nurse-girls, park loafers, policemen, lazy pedestrians, noisy boys, nice little girls with hoops," Luks was becoming a "plein-[air] artiste."
Throughout his career, Luks let subject matter guide him in technique. That is, beggar women were suitably drawn with broad brush strokes and somber colors while nannies and their wards were rendered in short, pointillist brush strokes and bright colors. Further, although Luks never named a master other than Franz Hals, whose work he encountered on early trips to Europe, he was susceptible to the influence and suggestions of many artists around him. Sometimes insecure in his own talent, a hazard often encountered by those imbued with a natural facility and flexibility, Luks would work and rework pieces after asking a visitor's opinion. In the same vein, he would adopt an artist's style as inadvertently as some adopt an accent when they hear far-from-home dialects.
With the images of Henri Matisse, Vincent van Gogh and others fresh in his mind and the subject matter of the middle class at leisure now his daily fare, Luks' brush stroke became more staccato and his palette brightened. In many watercolors from the Teens, the brightly colored, mosaic-patterned watercolors of the city's parks and promenades painted by Maurice Prendergast seem to influence Luks. Prendergast, who was also a member of The Eight, though not a proponent of the Ash Can School, absorbed the techniques of the European modernists early on and was a prolific watercolorist. The flat, decorative quality of his pieces reflected the French Symbolist circle of the Nabis while the color and brush stroke related to the Fauves and Post-Impressionists. Of all the artists with whom Luks associated, Prendergast was the most seriously involved in watercolor.
Prendergast's influence on Luks, and that of the Europeans, is especially seen in River Boats (pg. no. 27). The subject matter, a Sunday-afternoon promenade along the river, and the technique, short daubs of bright color which allow the white of the paper to show through, both reveal this. Also like Prendergast, Luks sketched the composition in pencil first, quickly noting his general impressions. Once he applied the watercolors, Luks did not follow his pencil outlines completely. A more exaggerated staccato brush technique is apparent in High Bridge Park (pg. no. 24). Here the dominant use of yellow and green creates flat, decorative shapes similar to the work of the Nabis, whose style acknowledged the two-dimensionality of the painting surface and rejected illusionary attempts to simulate the three-dimensionality of the real world. The figures are generalized and frozen in contrast to the excited brush work of the lawn and foliage which swirls around them.
Playing Soldiers (pg. no. 25) and Gossip (pg. no. 26) are two pictures where Luks is seen to be experimenting with pastels, which enrich the texture and work to saturate the color of the water medium. He exhibited pastels only once in his lifetime, at an exhibition at the Kraushaar Gallery in 1916. In Playing Soldiers the brilliant blue watercolor wash creates an intense, overall mood, while the pastels are used to define the image. Gossip shows Luks' continued interest in humor and anecdote.
Luks had begun exhibiting at the New York Water Color Club Annual in 1913 and continued to do so until 1917. In 1916, he won the Hudnut Award given by the Club for On the Marne (whereabouts unknown). This was the first award he received in any medium, an important signal of the stature of his watercolors. In 1917, he was honored with a one-man show at the Newark Museum and his oils continued to win awards including the Temple Gold Medal from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for Houston Street.
In 1919, Luks went fishing in the eastern Canadian province of Nova Scotia. He may have been invited by a fellow member of The Eight, Ernest Lawson, who is known to have been there at the same time. Lawson's impressionistic style may even have been an influence on Luks. In any case, Luks let loose his watercolor style in the streams and forests of Nova Scotia and produced a remarkable body of work which he exhibited to great critical acclaim at Kraushaar's the following year. One critic noted that there were still "surprises up [the artist's] sleeve" and it should not be thought that his best work was behind him in his better-known Ash Can paintings. Some of these watercolors were later worked up into oils, but there is no question that the works on paper are finished pieces rather than preparatory sketches.
Fisherman and Boulders (pg. no. 37) is a dramatic piece with the bulk of the composition taken up by a magnificent boulder colored with blue, red, and black. Man pitted against nature is observed in the diminutive figure of a fisherman perched on the rocky embankment to the left. Great arabesques of water swirl around the rocks in The Screecher, Lake Rossignol, Nova Scotia (pg. no. 32). Executed with powerfully confident brush strokes in all shades of blue and green and accented in red or purple, the water dominates many of the scenes of Nova Scotia. Luks enjoyed the notion of being a rugged personality, having loved the outdoors since his childhood in rural Pennsylvania.
John Marin (1870 - 1953) was a twentieth-century painter and watercolorist who, though slightly younger, was Luks' contemporary and a member of the Stieglitz circle. Some of the painters in this group -- Marin, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley and others -- were proponents of abstraction rather than realism and were therefore sometimes viewed as an opposing camp to Luks and his circle. Marin's nautical scenes of Maine and Long Island Sound were highly stylized in the modernist aesthetic but still evocative of the sights and sounds of water. In his pictures from Nova Scotia, Luks came closest to Marin's brand of abstraction by allowing stylized, geometric form and pattern to enter his compositions. A further similarity to Marin's work came in allowing the white of the paper to show, rather than washing the entire sheet with color. Brush strokes were laid on distinctly without touching one to another, thereby prohibiting the colors from bleeding. Layering was achieved by allowing the first color to dry before adding another on top, creating opaque areas of dense color.
Charles Burchfield (1893 - 1967) was another watercolorist whose evocations of nature walked the line between symbolist abstraction and realism. The power of Burchfield's brush is similar to that of Luks' and both were expert colorists.
In 1925, Luks returned to his childhood home of Pottsville, Pennsylvania to document the coal miners and their surroundings. He set up a studio during the summer of that year and was treated like a returning celebrity. Though Luks produced many works in other media during his visit to Pottsville, including a mural on the history of anthracite commissioned for the Necho Allen Hotel (Allen was the discoverer of the potential of anthracite as fuel), his watercolors again constitute an important body of work.
For Luks at this time, the miners and their families provided the same inspiration the beggar women and street vendors had almost two decades earlier in the streets of New York. Again he approached his subjects without pity or sentimentality and came away with powerful, down-to-earth images. His parents had aided the miners and were sympathetic with their fight for better working conditions. Luks, now in his mid-fifties, must have felt a sincere homecoming in revisiting the people his parents had risked their lives to aid. The town had probably not changed much in the thirty odd years of separation. Coal breakers, culm banks, and company houses still dominated the otherwise rural landscape.
Daughter of the Mines (pg. no. 39) shows a woman in her kitchen slumped into a chair with one hand on the bowl of food she has been preparing. Her tired, somnambulist gaze meets that of the viewer and we find ourselves sharing the immense burden of this woman's everyday existence. Here Luks has returned to his earlier, more traditional watercolor technique of laying down dark washes of color and bringing up the image by applying lighter colors on top.
Other images have a spiritual sense to them, especially Village of St. Clair (pg. no. 40) where the gold cross mounted atop the church steeple stands out like a beacon against the rich overall dark blue, black and grey of the landscape. Like the structures of Burchfield, Luks' church is imbued with an almost human persona as it looks out toward the small cottage and figures on the left. Sunlight pours over this small dwelling and the female figures of mother, daughter and grandchild who evoke the endless circle of the ages of man. In the distance looms the dark shape of a coal breaker which controls their mortal lives.
Scenes of Pottsville demonstrate Luks' skill as a colorist and again reveal the Fauvist influence. Color is felt rather than observed in the ramshackle houses of Miners' Shacks, Pottsville (pg. no. 42). Their forms perch unsteadily along the hillside which Luks has animated with undulating brush strokes. These are not secure, stable homes but rather temporary shelters, reflecting the precarious existence of their occupants, whose shadowy forms are only incidental to Luks' composition. The houses on the left are in shadow while those on the right are caught in a beam of sunlight turning their edges red and yellow.
The final, and most prolific, chapter in Luks' career as a watercolorist took place in the hills of New York, just west of the Berkshires near the town of Old Chatham. Luks bought a farmhouse there in the late 1920s along with twenty-six acres of land. Here, as in the paintings from Nova Scotia, his powers as a colorist and draftsman are vividly apparent.
My House, Berkshire Hills (pg. no. 52), the title of which shows Luks' proprietary fondness for his summer retreat, is a brilliant piece. The white house is outlined in red, yellow and blue to set it apart from the vibrant color of the surrounding fields and mountains. The Expressionistic color and Post-Impressionistic brush strokes are strong evocations of Luks' sustained skill with the medium. The dramatic red signature, a color often used by Luks when he signed his pieces, further impresses the artist's presence in the work. A great sense of pleasure exudes from the piece as it did from Luks himself, who was a self-described lover of life; the green rocker on the side porch of the house was probably much used. As one critic noted, "These are tranquil, bright notes by a good-natured realist who enjoyed landscapes over again by painting them."
The Old Gristmill, The Berkshires (pg. no. 46) and Railroad Crossing, The Berkshires (pg. no. 47) are other examples from this period showing life in rural America as tranquil and wholesome.
Woman in the Field (pg. no. 48), like the earlier Village of St. Clair, has a subtle spiritual quality. The bent figure of an elderly woman serves to connect the earthly and heavenly areas of the piece which are clearly divided along the horizon line by color. The field is a riot of mauve, red, blue, green and yellow while the sky, also multi-colored, is rendered in contrasting tones of blue, green and purple. The church to the left of the composition peers over the rise of the hill and thrusts its steeple into the heavens while the figure appears to be caught between the two planes of earth and sky.
Luks could not resist painting the residents of this upper New York State community, many of whom were rugged individualists with characters as flamboyant as his own. Mrs. Gamely was 110 years old when Luks painted her portrait in oils and she may have also been the model for Woman and Turkey (pg. no. 45). This interior kitchen scene shows a determined, seated woman with feet firmly planted in an effort to brace herself against the formidable chore of plucking the bird. It is a simple, humorous piece, reminiscent of the genre scenes of Franz Hals.
Luks was actively exhibiting his watercolors in the late 1920s and early '30s. In 1926, the year in which he won the Chicago Art Institute's Logan Medal for the second time, he exhibited in the International Watercolor Show at the same institution. In 1929, 1931 and 1932, he exhibited in the annual watercolor exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Luks died as forcefully as he had lived. On October 29, 1933, he was found by a patrolman in the grey dawn of a New York morning, slumped in the doorway of a Sixth Avenue pub. The newspapers talked of a heart attack suffered during an early morning walk, but the truth was that he died of injuries sustained in a brawl.
Despite the breadth of his activity as a watercolor painter, this aspect of the artist's life's work is often overlooked. There was no mention of the watercolors in Elisabeth Cary's monograph on the artist, published by the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1930. Ralph Clayes Talcott's thesis, The Watercolors of George Luks, written for The Pennsylvania State University in 1970, was the first general assessment of Luks' work in this medium.
A signal of Luks' importance in watercolor is his inclusion, along with four other major American artists and exponents of the medium, John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, John Marin and Charles Burchfield, in a group show at the Marie Sterner Gallery in 1922. The exhibition went across stylistic lines to concentrate on the medium as the unifying theme. The artists seem to have been chosen to represent their generations: Homer had died twelve years earlier, Sargent was in his late fifties, Luks in his late forties, Marin in his forties and young Burchfield only in his twenties.
One year after Luks' death, the Vose Gallery of Boston mounted an exhibition of his watercolors. In 1942, Luks was represented in the Whitney Museum's exhibition, History of American Watercolor Painting. But there are more instances where his name is excluded than included in discussions on watercolor painting. It is important that this body of work in watercolor is now recognized and that another facet of an important American artist is fully revealed.
About the author
Since 1993, Judith Hansen O'Toole has been director/CEO of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, where her expertise in nineteenth-and twentieth-century American art is reflected in the museum's collections and exhibitions. She was director of the Sordoni Art Gallery and an associate professor at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, from 1982 - 1993. She has organized exhibitions on artists and artist groups including the early twentieth century artists George Luks and Carl Sprinchorn, American still-life painting, the Ash Can School and the Hudson River School. She is widely consulted as the authority on works by Severin Roesen and Luks.
To read other articles and essays reprinted in Resource Library that are written by Judith Hansen O'Toole, please click here.
Resource Library editor's note
The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on November 24, 2008, with permission of the author and the Canton Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on April 8, 2008. Ms. O'Toole's catalogue essay pertains to a special exhibition, George Luks: Expressionist Master of Color - The Watercolors Rediscovered, that was on view at the Canton Museum of Art, Canton, Ohio (November 25, 1994 - January 29, 1995), the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg, Pennsylvania (February 11, 1995 - April 9, 1995) and the Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, Ohio (May 7, 1995 - June 18, 1995). The exhibition's catalogue is titled "George Luks: Expressionist Master of Color: the Watercolors Rediscovered." Published by Canton Museum of Art, 1994. ISBN 0964407108, 9780964407107. 64 pages
An adaptation of this text was also published in the June - July 1995 issue of American Art Review.
Resource Library wishes to
extend appreciation to Robb Hyde of Canton Museum of Art and Shana Herb
Johannessen for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above
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