George Luks, “Portrait of a Man,” undated

Students in ART 3663: History of American Art were recently asked to compare this early twentieth century portrait by Ashcan artist George Luks with colonial portraiture.  Here are some of their responses:

“[Colonial] portraits were made for viewers to understand why the sitter was important. Their clothing and the details surrounding them symbolized what they had achieved. [By Luks’ time,] there were new choices being made by the artist, such as adding his own signature and making the brushwork less precise. [Artists] also began to put more emphasis on the person rather than filling the painting with the owner’s possessions. Portrait of a Man is a great example of how art has continued to change while keeping some of the key elements that first made [American] portraiture a success.” —Kristen Haga

“While many portrait painters seek to immortalize a person along with his/her wealth and status, Luks does the opposite in this portrait. By taking the focus away from detailed belongings and settings, the artist comes closer to capturing the man himself and not a carefully constructed image of prosperity.” —Lora Webb

George Luks, "Portrait of a Man," undated. Oil on canvas, Gardiner Permanent Art Collection.

“The first thing I noticed about the painting was the brush strokes. It made me think of fast, abstract painting, like [Jackson] Pollock. … Most of the details are in the face. … I focused so much on the man’s face that I didn’t even notice that the hand and arm were very carelessly put in, almost as if they were an afterthought. … I enjoy Luks’ use of color; up close the pure reds in the eyes are very distinct, but from far away it blends with the rest of the skin tones. His use of color fades the man’s body into the background. This fade makes the viewer’s eye go right back to the man’s face.” —Melissa Spicer

“Luks’ subject is lit up from a non-existent light source. His forehead is the central lighted part, illuminating his face better than the rest of his body or his background. In contrast, colonial portraits […] featured lighting on the entire portrait, illuminating both subject and background. The light on the entire portrait would draw the viewer’s eye to every detail of wealth and class status. In Luks’ portrait, the light only on the man’s head seems to be a reference to intellect.” —Chelsea Williams

“George Luks displays the American values of faith, education, and humility in his work Portrait of a Man by use of color, painting techniques, and the portrayal of the subject. … The subject’s expression is one of refined intelligence, displayed further by the artist’s use of thick impasto and a lack of defined lines. This deliberate haziness in the man’s face leaves the viewer focused solely on his gaze. Another hint to this man’s scholarly background comes from the fraternal pin he wears upon his breast. Because this is the only prop given to us by the artist, one must take into account its importance. Fraternal societies were a place of social belonging centered on mutual educational backgrounds or interests…” —Kelli Bass

“Portrait painters in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had a … concept of realism [that] included adding backgrounds that alluded to classical ideas that related to the same ideals of the person being painted. For Luks, the idea of realism was drastically different; realism involved a more painterly and simple approach that gave an impression of the person being painted to create a specific mood.” —Trisha Thompson

“Portrait painting, since its inception, has been about shaping an image. … Putting everything together, one is able to make out a fairly substantial picture of how this man wanted the viewer to see him. His clothing tells the viewer that he is wealthy, but conservative. He does not indulge in the frivolous or unnecessary. His body language communicates that he is dependable, stable, capable, His expression reveals he is serious, focused, yet also very aware of his status in reference to others.” —Jacki Dunn

“A realistic oil on canvas depicting a wealthy adult male, Portrait of a Man is one of many windows into the past. Through expression, demeanor, attire and setting, Luks gives viewers a clear representation of the portrait as a representation of class, but the detail, brushwork, composition and color usage give viewers a visual representation of Luks’s status as a painter as well.” —Parker Norman

“If the canvas of early colonial art had a name on it, it was that of the sitter. [John Singleton Copley (1738-1815)] signed his work conspicuously only when it was displayed in the Royal Academy. Luks’ signature, however, is very visible. It is large and in red paint that stands out from the otherwise dark canvas. The colonial sitter is more important than the colonial painter, but […] it may have been more important to [Luks’] sitter for people to know who painted his portrait than to be known himself.” —Lora Webb


About osucurator

Louise Siddons is Associate Professor of Art History at Oklahoma State University and founding curator of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. She maintains this blog as a record of her students' work with the Museum's permanent collection as well as more generally with topics related to museum studies.
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