Considered an exemplar of the Ashcan School, George Benjamin Luks was known for his spirited character which was reflected in his energetic brushwork. A critic described him this way: “As for the personality of the man… He is Puck. He is Caliban. He is Falstaff. He is a tornado. He is sentimental. He can sigh like a lover, and curse like a trooper.” As a revered teacher at the Art Students League in New York, Luks hired William H. Johnson as a studio assistant, which helped enable Johnson to afford to go abroad; he also mentored Eugene Thomason with whom he had an enduring friendship.

Luks was born in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, but moved as a child to nearby Pottsville where he observed the desperate lives of coal miners. As a teenager he performed vaudeville, and toured with his brother in a minstrel act called “Buzzey and Anstock.” However, he decided he would rather be an artist. For a short period, he attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts before going abroad where he encountered the influential work of old masters, such as Frans Hals and Diego Velasquez. He took classes at the Düsseldorf School of Art in Germany. Returning to the States, he settled in Philadelphia in 1893 where he began as an illustrator for the Philadelphia Press. He associated with other members of the Ashcan School, so-called because of their dark palettes and gritty subject matter. 

In 1896 Luks moved to New York and was employed by the New York World for whom he did comic strips, including, for a time, The Yellow Kid. Some maintain that the satirical cartoon led to the concept of “yellow journalism,” the practice of sensationalizing events and personalities to gain readership. Fellow artists urged Luks to focus on his painting, and eventually, in 1908, he exhibited with them in a group known as The Eight. He chose urban subjects—often crowded street scenes of downtrodden people—rendered unidealized with a loaded brush. In his figure studies he usually posed his sitters frontally against a dark background.

In 1924 Luks accompanied Thomason on a trip to the Carolinas, and The Charlotte Observer took note of the visit, unfortunately misspelling Thomason’s name: “Famous Artist, Guest of Edgar Thomason, Tells of Human Ills and Whims; Man Who Has Painted Portraits of World-Famous Folks Likes Charlotte, Says He Will Come Again, Goes Hunting in Game Paradise Near Georgetown, S.C., and Kills Wild Cats Instead of Ducks.” Thomason was an accomplished outdoorsman which Luks was not. Throughout the interview Luks regaled the reporter with anecdotes, jokes, aphorisms, and praised southern hospitality and cornbread with honey. 

Despite his own rather modest training in art, Luks was a popular instructor for a while at the Art Students League, which had been established by artists in opposition to the more academic National Academy of Design. He often took his students to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Thomason recounted his mentor’s reaction to a portrait by John Singer Sargent: “[he] usually gave Sargent the raspberry—weak hands on portraits. …Guards were glad to see him leave, always a crowd following him like a circus parade, very witty.” The administration of the League was not always pleased with Luks’s antics, and in 1924 dismissed him for drunkenness. Undeterred, Luks founded his own school which was described in a promotional brochure as “a virile school of Living American Art. … It is George Luks’ policy to develop the individuality of the student and to give him a sound knowledge of the craft of painting, building up each student with sympathetic and wise counsel so that they see and think for themselves.” Another southern painter, Lamar Dodd, attended the school alongside Thomason and described it in glowing terms: “[It] had a group of painters probably second to none in the city—at the time. I could write a book about Luks and my experiences there.”