George Luks: The “Other” Yellow Kid Artist
R.F. Outcault is rightly remembered and revered as the creator of the seminal Yellow Kid, but George Luks created a competing version of the comics superstar. RICHARD OLSON examines the multi-talented (but self-destructive) artist who also worked in Hogan’s Alley.
After he fell to the pavement, they kicked him again and ran off into the night laughing that “Chicago Whitey” had finally gotten what he deserved. On Oct. 29, 1933, one of America’s greatest twentieth century artists was found dead in the doorway of a speakeasy near the Sixth Avenue elevated railway in Manhattan; so ended both the life and the career of George B. Luks at the age of 66. A natural artist, he had achieved fame as a newspaper cartoonist drawing the Yellow Kid, but he achieved far greater fame as a painter bringing an emphasis on earthy realism to the world of fine art.
George Benjamin Luks was born Aug. 13, 1867, in Williamsport, Penn., the son of Central European immigrants Emil Charles Luks and Bertha Amalia von Kraemer Luks. His father was a doctor and his mother loved art. In 1872 the family moved to Shenandoah, Penn., where they lived during most of Luks’ childhood. In 1882, George and his brother, Will, using the stage name “Buzzey & Anstock,” toured Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In 1884 he enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, but after a brief stay of perhaps a month, he dropped out of school to study art on his own.
During the next decade, Luks traveled back and forth to Europe to study art by visiting the great museums and also studying the renowned Dutch artist Frans Hals. (Luks was often quoted as saying there were only two great artists in the world–Frans Hals and little old George Luks.) Needless to say, Luks’ paintings clearly show Hals’ influence. He also studied for a period in Dusseldorf, Germany, while he traveled throughout Europe. It was also widely reported, including by Luks himself, that he enjoyed Europe’s nightlife as intensely as its art. He developed the appearance and lifestyle of a Bohemian artist, seeming to revel in it. It is interesting to note that Richard F. Outcault, with whom he would be forever linked in few years, was essentially doing the same thing and also returned from Europe as something of a Bohemian artist after his studies in Paris.
Luks returned to America in 1891 and did some illustrations for Puck and Truth. He went back to Europe in 1892 and visited Spain, where he was significantly influenced by the work of Velasquez and Goya. He returned to the United States in 1893 and continued working for the same magazines, adding Music and Drama to the list. An example of this early work is the page he drew for Truth that consists of a series of pastel paintings rather than a typical magazine illustration. Although without virtually any formal training, Luks’ ability as an artist was always highly regarded from the beginning.
Like other aspiring artists, Luks had bills to pay, so he joined the Philadelphia Free Press in 1894 as an illustrator. There, he first met fellow artists who were now coworkers, including John Sloan, Everett Shinn and William Glackens. These same colleagues introduced him to Philadelphia artist Robert Henri, who became a mentor for them. Their group became known as the Philadelphia Five.
His career took a small detour in 1895 when he traveled to Cuba as an artist-correspondent for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. As was reputed to be the case for many journalists covering the war, many of his stories and drawings were created in the bar, far from the battlefront.
When he returned to America in 1896, he joined the staff of Pulitzer’s World as an illustrator and cartoonist; he also did some excellent work on covers for The Verdict, a political cartoon weekly. One of his many famous colleagues at the World was Richard F. Outcault, who had joined the staff in 1894. By the time Luks arrived, Outcault had almost quit doing illustrations and was engaged primarily in cartoons, both for the paper as a staff member and as a freelance contributor to the humor magazines published in New York. (Below are some of Luks’ paintings; click to enlarge.)
Outcault’s Yellow Kid became so popular with the public and showed that it increased the newspaper’s sales as well as the sales of merchandise his likeness appeared on, from candy to whiskey. This awareness was occurring at the same time that William Randolph Hearst had come to town, purchased the Journal and was having an intense battle with Pulitzer’s World for dominance in New York City. Hearst knew a good thing when he saw it and lured Outcault away from Pulitzer: The World’s last Outcault Yellow Kid cartoon, “The Amateur Dime Museum in Hogan’s Alley,” appeared on Oct. 4, 1896. Two weeks later, Outcault was drawing the Yellow Kid in McFadden’s Flats for Hearst’s Journal. (Below are a few of Luks’ Yellow Kid pages; click to enlarge.)
Pulitzer was not to be outdone, however, and assigned Luks to continue drawing the Yellow Kid in Hogan’s Alley for the World. Luks’ first full-page Yellow Kid cartoon, “Training for the Football Championship Game in Hogan’s Alley,” appeared the week after Outcault left and was published Oct. 11, 1896, in the World. The page illustrates two main differences between the work of Luks and Outcault: first, Luks drew the ears of the Yellow Kid in a much more pronounced and comical fashion, and second, he created the Little Nippers, the small Yellow Kid twins George and Alex, who appeared in each of his Yellow Kid pages. Luks drew nearly 50 Yellow Kid pages, signing them all “Geo B. Luks,” before the World terminated the series on Dec. 5, 1897. (Interestingly, he was signing his magazine work at the same time as “George B. Luks.”) Outcault’s Yellow Kid Sunday pages ended in the Journal two months later on Feb. 6, 1898; Outcault continued to draw the Yellow Kid intermittently in the daily paper a few months longer.
By all accounts, there was no love lost between Pulitzer and Hearst. At the very least, their rivalry manifested itself in the work of Luks and Outcault as the two artists battled for Yellow Kid supremacy in New York. Once he knew he was leaving the Journal, Outcault fired the first volley: The Sept. 6, 1896, page contains a box that says, “DO NOT BE DECEIVED. NONE GENUINE WITHOUT THIS SIGNATURE. R. F. Outcault.” In his penultimate page for the World on Sept. 27, 1896, he actually cocreated a page with Luks. It looks like a regular Outcault Hogan’s Alley panel, except the upper-right corner shows Luks dressed in a house painter’s uniform and hat with a bulbous, red, drinker’s nose looking, maybe sneering, down into the page. It is hard to imagine that Luks drew himself in that fashion unless he was suggesting that even a drunken house painter could draw Outcault’s Yellow Kid, the most popular comic character in New York. Outcault’s first page in the Journal showed the entire gang walking in McFadden’s Row of Flats with a variety signs indicating that this was where the reader would find the real Yellow Kid. Not to be outdone, On Jan. 10, 1897, Luks published a panel–titled “Bargain Day in Hogan’s Alley”–showing an Outcault-like character selling old Yellow Kid sketches while Luks stands in the crowd, observing the fire-sale. (For a further discussion of this and related topics, read David Westbrook’s excellent article “From Hogan’s Alley to Coconino County.”)
While at the World, Luks also renewed his relationship with fellow staffers Glackens and Shinn. Glackens encouraged Luks to continue his painting and to move beyond the newspaper. Luks worked at his painting and was finally able to make a living at it. He left the newspaper in 1898 so he could limit his focus to his painting, which probably pleased the gallery owners. He also returned to Paris and England to study and party in 1902-03. He left Lois, his first of three wives, home, and while he was away she had his only son, Kent. George and Kent were estranged after he divorced his wife a year later. He was married to Emma Noble from 1904 to 1925 and Mercedes Carbonell from 1927 until his death.
After returning to New York, he took part in an exhibition with his friends at the Natural Arts Club. His interest remained the same subject matter that he focused on in his Yellow Kid drawings: the everyday person. In fact the work of him and his friends was dubbed the “ashcan” school because of its realistic treatment of urban scenes in which they poked fun at the upper classes and paid homage to the common man.
Because the focus of their work–everyday realism–was not popular, they challenged the dominance and jury system of the National Academy of Art. Under the direction of Robert Henri, their leader, they had their own exhibition at the Macbeth Gallery and were subsequently referred to as The Eight. The group included Henri, William Glackens, Everett Shinn, John Sloan, Arthur Davies, Maurice Pendergast, Ernest Lawson and Luks.
Luks’ best work was the best of any member of The Eight. However, his work was very inconsistent. He is perhaps best known for his 1905 painting “The Spielers” (German for “the players”), a painting of two little girls dancing happily. Also excellent were his sensitive though melancholy portraits of old women. In addition, he did some magnificent, large paintings of bustling street life on the Lower East Side. Incredibly, when he deviated from his usual style of aggressive blunt strokes, he created some of his greatest works. For example, “The Swan Boats” is a large, brilliant, pointillist work that would not normally be recognized as a Luks painting, yet it was for sale recently at more than $1 million.
In the July 1914 issue of Vanity Fair, Luks’ work was published for the first time in that magazine. His collection of several watercolors and drawings proved popular, and his association with that magazine lasted another twenty years.
During 1918 he won the Temple Gold Medal at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, one of several he would be awarded during his career. He also spent the autumn in Connecticut with his friend Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore.
Luks continued to paint and exhibit, and he even taught for several years at the Art Students League in New York. He later founded the George Luks School of Painting in midtown Manhattan and painted alongside his students until his death in 1933. He won numerous medals and prizes for his work and truly was a natural artist. Today his works are held in the Art Institute of Chicago, the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and many other major museums and collections.
But even as he was burnishing his reputation in the art community, Luks harbored another side of his personality to which he gave a largely free rein. He still liked to have play hard and enjoy the high life. He was short and a little pudgy and liked to dress ostentatiously, wearing capes, large hats and even a monocle. He liked to think of himself as the “bad boy” of American art. He was a hard drinker and enjoyed going into bars, starting fights and slipping out without participating. Luks liked to say that the world was a circus and he was the clown. He told people he was “Chicago Whitey,” the winner of 150 fights. But on that October night in 1933, his self-destructive impulses won the match.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in Hogan’s Alley #13 (pictured at right). To buy a copy of that issue (which includes sidebars and checklists not presented here), you can use Paypal (click the button below) to have a copy mailed to you for only $7.