The Cartoonist as Artist, Part 3

Cartoonists in the Armory Show, 2: George Luks

"Street Scene (Hester Street)" George Luks, 1905
“Street Scene (Hester Street)” George Luks, 1905

George Luks is remembered primarily for his work as a painter, and particularly for his involvement in the Ashcan School and as a member of “The Eight.” However, a recent monograph on the artist by Robert Gambone makes a powerful case for the need to see Luks’s work as a commercial illustrator as central to his ouvre: “Rather than forming a preliminary or preparatory footnote to his more well known and successful career as a painter, the journal, book, and newspaper graphics of George B. Luks remain important precisely because they constitute a prime locus where he developed and worked out attitudes and ideas that shaped his entire career…” (Gambone, xiii)

"The Spielers" George Luks, 1905
“The Spielers” George Luks, 1905

Indeed, the biographical portrait of Luks that Gambone lays out in the first one is fascinating, as he seems to have been a man quite uninfluenced by the bifurcation of American Culture that was at its apex early in his career. As a young man, Luks and his brother formed a blackface minstrel act, “Buzzy and Anstock,” touring low-class urban theaters. Luks then broke up the act a year later upon enrolling in the storied Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Luks left the academy after a short stint there, and resumed the minstrel act.  The act ceased touring again when Luks left for Germany to study at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, where he again remained only a matter of months.

In 1890, when Monet began a public campaign to purchase Manet’s Olympia for the state of France to exhibit, the cartoonist was in Paris studying informally at museums, and would have been very aware of the ensuing bruhaha that came after Monet’s public letter about the matter in La Figaro. (Gambone, 11-12) If only the most elite American artists were exposed to modernism before the 1913 Armory Show, people like the former minstrel, multiple art academy drop-out, and  newspaper cartoonist George Luks was among this “elite.”

Luks began doing cartoons for the magazines Puck and Truth in the 1890s. As Gambone points out, magazines were middle-brow and middle-class, and may have well been seen as an entree into respectable art by the young Luks. Indeed, top cartoonists like Thomas Nast and Puck owner Joseph Keppler were commanding quite a lot for their works, and Nast was supplementing this by working the lecture circuit describing how he had gone tête a bête, as it were, against Boss Tweed. In my own research, I was shocked at how widely and vehemently Keppler was on his death in 1895, memorialized from newspapers to literary magazines– surprising to someone has seen the unceremonious five-line obits of some of the most pioneering (but forgotten) early comic strip artists.

Outcault's Yellow Kid
Outcault’s Yellow Kid

Mickey Dougan, The Yellow Kid, was a character created by cartoonist Richard Felton Outcault, and Outcault is often described by many as the first newspaper comic strip cartoonist. The character appeared first in magazine cartoons, and later made the move into the Sunday color supplement of Pulitzer’s New York World in 1895. The color cartoons centered around the Kid and the other denizens of the tenement neighborhood of Hogan’s Alley. Anarchic, madcap, and sometimes violent, the strip was the first time that cartoons demonstrably drove newspaper sales, and the Yellow Kid was used to merchandise everything from dolls and chewing gum to stage plays. This was something new, something big, and Pulitzer saw that the newspaper’s comic insert could be an important too for driving sales.

A George Luks "Hogan's Alley" page, 18 October 1896
A George Luks “Hogan’s Alley” page, 18 October 1896

This happened in the midst of the famous rivalry between Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, and Hearst was not content to let Pulitzer’s success go unpunished. Offering more money, Hearst hired Outcault out from under Pulitzer, and began publishing Yellow Kid strips in the New York Journal. Pulitzer, believing he had a claim on the character’s copyright, hired Luks– already an artist on the World staff– to begin drawing new Yellow Kid strips. A court case resulted, and the ultimate finding was that Outcault could continue to use the character as it was his creation, but the strip’s title, Hogan’s Alley, belonged to the World. Both papers continued to run strips featuring the character under different names.

Luks’s willingness to take over Outcault’s duties on Hogan’s Alley was apparently not well received by others in the World bullpin. Theater critic Louis Sobol would recall, second-hand, an interaction between Luks  and a former coworker years later in his memoir The Longest Street. Sobol recalled a story told by producer John Golden, who had been in the World art department with Luks after Outcault’s departure:

“Well, William Randolph Hearst came along and coaxed Outcault to bring ‘Yellow Kid’ over to the Journal. Whereupon Joe Pulitzer, irked by this theft of one of his artists, had a certain newcomer imitate the strip, and for quite a while we had two ‘Yellow Kids’ running. Everybody in the business considered this highly unethical, and in fact many of the boys stopped talking to the young imitator artist.

“The years passed, and I became a producer. One day my secretary came in and said there was a man outside to see me, and, of course, as you must guess, it was the ostracized cartoonist. By this time, I wasn’t as peeved with him as I had been in those earlier days, so I told the girl to show him in.

“He said: ‘Look here, John Golden, you don’t have to be so high-hat with me. I don’t do any silly cartoons anymore. I move around with the best of them. I paint kings and queens, and I get more for a single painting than I did for a whole year’s cartooning. So don’t be so stuck up with me. I’m just as important as you are.'”

Golden went on to tell us that indeed the fellow had become as important as he claimed. He was George B. Luks whose paint­ings were hung in national museums around the world, and whom James Huneker once described as “a Puck, a Caliban, a Falstaff, a tornado.” (Sobol, 408)

While second-hand, the story rings true in terms of Luks’s cantankerous personality as well as his ambition. It is also made more believable by the fact that, even to this day, Luks is often given short mention or even not named in many accounts of the battle over the Yellow Kid, while Outcault is put at center stage. To me, this story has the ring of someone who was deeply hurt by exclusion by the social network of artists with whom he was, at that time, in daily contact. He seems to have seen his relative success as a fine artist as a comeuppance to that exclusion– an attitude that might suggest that, even while he had more acceptance in the world of fine arts, he saw the commercial work he did as related, contiguous, if not equivalent.

The Cartoonist as Artist:

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