Opening Exhibition of the Birmingham Museum of Art
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This object is a member of the following groups (click any group name to view all objects in that group):Periods and Styles: The Ashcan School & Urban Realism
Exhibitions: 4 x 4
Exhibitions: Learning to Look: The Addison at 90
Themes: MLC Portfolio: American Identity
Two years after George Luks painted <i>The Spielers</i>, he wrote confidently to his dealer, William Macbeth, "I want $2000 [for the painting] for I am sure it will fetch that price and probably more later on.”<sup>1</sup> While Luks was somewhat optimistic (and unrealistic) in his prediction of what a collector would pay for his work—the going rate for a modern American painting at the time being somewhere around $500—he was correct in predicting that it would rise in value and importance. Over the next ten years, <i>The Spielers</i> (from the German <i>spielen</i>, to play), which was also called <i>Dancing Girls</i> or <i>East Side Children Dancing to Hand-Organ Music</i>,<sup>2</sup> was repeatedly singled out by critics as one of the finest examples of contemporary art and a symbol of life in the New York slums, where children of all backgrounds came together to play. In reviews of Luks's 1910 one-man exhibition at the Macbeth Gallery, it was described as a "masterpiece" and a "justly famous picture.”<sup>3</sup> Probably because of the price that the artist demanded, <i>The Spielers</i> remained unsold even after numerous exhibitions and countless glowing reviews. Luks finally did sell the painting to Archibald B. Gwathmey, a New York broker, around 1914.<sup>4</sup> Although it is not recorded whether he got the $2,000 he had anticipated, <i>The Spielers</i>, more than any other work by Luks, made his reputation.
Writing in an article devoted to Luks in the <i>New York Times Magazine</i> on 6 February 1916, critic James Huneker was extravagant in his praise:
<i>The east side is yet to boast its Dickens. And Dickens would have enjoyed the picture of the little tousled Irish girl with her red locks who dances with the pretty flaxen-haired German child, surely a baker's daughter of Avenue B. Now you might suppose that this vivid art, this painting which has caught and retained the primal jolt and rhythm of the sketch, might be necessary rude and unscientific in technique. It is the reverse. This particular picture is full of delicious tonalities. The head of the blonde girl might be from an English eighteenth century masterpiece.</i><sup>5</sup>
It was this combination of contemporary subject matter in the tradition of portrayals of the common people by artists such as Pieter Bruegel, William Hogarth, and Jean-François Millet with the energetic brush technique echoing that of Frans Hals and perhaps even that of Fragonard, that brought Luks's work to prominence. While the photographs of Jacob Riis, the novels of Theodore Dreiser, and countless melodramatic anonymous reports in the newspapers of the day offered a depressing picture of life for the underclass, <i>The Spielers</i> presented a more optimistic view of harmony among children and was viewed as a celebration of American opportunity. In essence, the painting shows slums as Americans wanted to think they were like—places where children wore ragged clothes but were happy and well-fed enough to enjoy playing in the street. "To be a poet of the poor and yet not be sordid is something of an achievement," John Cournos wrote, praising Luks in the <i>International Studio</i>.<sup>6</sup> In <i>The Spielers</i>, in particular, there was nothing not to like about the painting. While Luks's other portrayals of slum children, such as <i><a href="http://accessaddison.andover.edu/Obj1219">The Little Madonna</a></i> (1907) also in the Addison Gallery collection or <i>The Sand Artist</i> (1905, formerly IBM Corporation), also present them sympathetically, the dancing subjects of <i>The Spielers</i> make it a particularly lively and appealing picture.
Since being acquired by the Addison Gallery in 1931, <i>The Spielers</i> has been lent to over fifty exhibitions at other institutions and requested for countless more. Its popularity reflects not only its merits as a work of art, but also its characterization as a painting of the Ashcan School. Americans have come to think of Luks and other members of Robert Henri's circle as artists with a social conscience because of their act of rebellion in organizing a show outside of the National Academy; in reality, their protest had more to do with the politics of artists' organizations than with any social agenda.
Luks was fascinated, quite simply, with interesting characters, many of whom he found in the New York slums. His paintings of adults have an edge to them—the faces are grimmer, showing the wear of years of living in less than ideal surroundings. As Luks's fellow artist Everett Shinn noted, had Luks met up with the older sisters of the two girls in this picture, "There would be no illusions.”<sup>7</sup> But it was the illusions that made <i>The Spielers</i> popular in its day. And now, while we know that child labor, poor living conditions, and disease made the lives of young immigrant children in the slums less than rosy, we too want to remember, most of all, the good moments when girls would dance together celebrating nothing more particular than being alive.
Gwendolyn Owens, <i>Addison Gallery of American Art: 65 Years, A Selective Catalogue</i> (Andover, Massachusetts: Addison Gallery of American Art, 1996), pp. 423-24
1. George Luks to William Macbeth, 3 June 1907, Macbeth Gallery Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., microfilm reel NMC 9, frame 338.
2. The painting seems to have had three titles, all within the first five years of its existence. In his letter to William Macbeth in 1907 (see n. 1 above), Luks calls the work <i>"Dancing Girls."</i> The title <i>East Side Children Dancing to Hand Organ Music</i> occurs once in John Spargo, "George Luks: An American painter of great originality and force whose art related to all the experience and interests of life," <i>The Craftsman</i> 12 (September 1907), p. 602. In the 1910 one-artist exhibition at the Macbeth Gallery, the work was exhibited as <i>Dancing Girls</i> but discussed by many reviewers under the title <i>The Spielers</i>, which had been used in earlier exhibitions. See reviews of the exhibition in the George Luks Papers, Archives of American Art, microfilm reel NLU 1.
3. "Around the Galleries: The Luks Pictures," <i>New York Sun</i> (20 April 1910), newspaper clipping, George Luks Papers, microfilm reel NLU 1, frame 20; "Paintings by George Luks," unidentified newspaper clipping, 27 April 1910, George Luks Papers, microfilm reel NLU 1, frame 14.
4. The sale of <i>The Spielers</i> may have been a direct transaction between the artist and the collector as there is no record of it in the account books of the Macbeth Gallery, now in the Archives of American Art, or in the records of Kraushaar Galleries, New York, which was also handling Luks's work at the time. I am grateful to Katherine Kaplan of Kraushaar for verifying that the sale was not handled by Kraushaar.
5. James Huneker, "George Luks, Versatile Painter of Humanity," <i>New York Times Magazine</i> (6 February 1916), p. 13.
6. John Cournos, "Three Painters of the New York School," <i>The International Studio</i> 12 (1915), p. 241.
7. Everett Shinn, "George Luks [previously unpublished memoir]" <i>Archives of American Art Journal</i> 6 (April 1966), p. 2.
This object was included in the following exhibitions:Exhibition of Paintings by George B. Luks, William Macbeth Gallery (William Macbeth, Inc.), 4/14/1910 - 4/27/1910
Memorial Exhibition of George Luks, The Newark Museum, 10/30/1934 - 1/6/1935
New York Realists (1900-1914), Whitney Museum of American Art, 2/9/1937 - 3/5/1937
American Painting from 1860 until Today, The Cleveland Museum of Art, 6/22/1937 - 10/4/1937
Twenty-five years of American art, MAM 25th Anniversary Exhibition, The Montclair Art Museum, 12/1/1938 - 12/24/1938
Exhibition of the Dance, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 12/2/1939 - 1/15/1940
Survey of American Painting, Carnegie Institute Museum of Art, 10/24/1940 - 12/15/1940
This is Our City: Exhibition of Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings and Prints, Whitney Museum of American Art, 3/11/1941 - 4/13/1941
The Eight, Brooklyn Museum, 11/24/1943 - 12/1/1944
Artists of the Philadelphia Press: William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn,, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 10/14/1945 - 11/18/1945
Picture of the Month, Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute Museum of Art, 1/1/1949 - 1/31/1949
Milestones of American Painting in Our Century, The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, 1/20/1949 - 12/31/1949
From Plymouth Rock to the Armory, Society of the Four Arts, 2/9/1950 - 3/5/1950
Opening Exhibition of the Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham Museum of Art, 4/8/1951 - 6/3/1951
Twentieth Century American Paintings, Wildenstein and Co., Inc., 2/20/1952 - 3/22/1952
American Painting Series, The Slater Memorial Museum, 2/7/1954 - 2/28/1954
The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts 150th Anniversary Exhibition, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1/15/1955 - 3/13/1955
Fifty Paintings, 1905-1913, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 5/14/1955 - 6/12/1955
Pennsylvania Painters, Pennsylvania State University, 10/7/1955 - 11/6/1955
Paintings by George Luks, Ogunquit Museum of American Art, 7/1/1956 - 9/10/1956
Scope in Collecting [25th Anniversary Exhibition], Addison Gallery of American Art, 10/19/1956 - 12/24/1956
Edward Wales Root (1884-1956) An American Collector, Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute Museum of Art, 4/28/1957 - 5/26/1957
Edward Wales Root: 1884-1956, An American Collector, Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute Museum of Art, 6/1/1957 - 6/30/1957
The American Vision, Wildenstein and Co., Inc., 10/22/1957 - 11/16/1957
250 Years of Art in Pennsylvania, The Westmoreland County Museum of Art, 5/29/1959 - 7/31/1959
North Shore Arts Festival, North Shore Arts Festival, 5/13/1960 - 5/22/1960
The Carnegie Study of the Arts of the United States: An Exhibition of Paintings , Williams College Museum of Art, 11/18/1960 - 12/16/1960
Directions in 20th Century American Painting, Dallas Museum of Art, 10/7/1961 - 11/12/1961
Art in American History, Addison Gallery of American Art, 7/22/1962 - 10/28/1962
The Ash Can School, Mead Art Museum, 11/26/1962 - 12/16/1962
Ascendancy of American Painting, Columbia Museum of Art and Gibbes Planetarium, 4/3/1963 - 6/2/1963
Four Centuries of American Art, Minneapolis Institute of Art, 11/27/1963 - 1/19/1964
Temple Beth El Art Festival, Temple Beth El Art Festival, 5/2/1964 - 5/8/1964
In Focus: A Look at Realism [in Art], Rochester Memorial Art Gallery, 12/28/1964 - 1/31/1965
Austin Arts Center, Trinity College: dedication exercises, May 15, 1965, Austin Art Center, Trinity College, 5/15/1965 - 6/14/1965
The Lower East Side: Portal to American Life, 1870-1924, The Jewish Museum, 9/21/1966 - 11/6/1966
The Lower East Side: Portal to American Life, 1870-1924, The Jewish Museum, 4/4/1967 - 7/2/1967
George Luks 1867-1933, ACA Galleries, 11/27/1967 - 12/23/1967
George Luks, 1866-1933, Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute Museum of Art, 4/1/1973 - 5/20/1973
Nothing is Certain But Change, Addison Gallery of American Art, 4/18/1975 - 5/18/1975
Turn-of-the-Century America: Paintings, Graphics, Photographs, 1890-1910, Whitney Museum of American Art, 6/29/1977 - 5/28/1978
Masterworks from the Collection: 50th Anniversary Exhibition, Addison Gallery of American Art, 5/9/1981 - 6/14/1981
Masterworks of American Art from the Addison Gallery Collection, Hirschl and Adler Galleries, Inc., 10/6/1981 - 10/31/1981
The Eight: A New Spirit in American Art, Danforth Museum of Art, 10/26/1986 - 1/4/1987
At Work and Play: Selections from the Permanent Collection, Addison Gallery of American Art, 5/15/1987 - 7/31/1987
Boys and Girls, Men and Women, Addison Gallery of American Art, 4/12/1990 - 6/10/1990
American Masterworks, Addison Gallery of American Art, 10/5/1990 - 12/16/1990
The American City, Addison Gallery of American Art, 1/18/1991 - 3/10/1991
Painters of a New Century: The Eight, Milwaukee Art Museum, 9/6/1991 - 9/21/1992
American Impressionism and Realism: The Painting of Modern Life, 1885-1915, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 5/2/1994 - 5/14/1995
Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and Their New York, 1897-1917, National Museum of American Art, 11/17/1995 - 3/17/1996
Addison Gallery of American Art: 65 Years, Addison Gallery of American Art, 4/13/1996 - 7/31/1996
The American Century: Art and Culture, 1900ı2000 (Part I: 1900ı1950), Whitney Museum of American Art, 4/23/1999 - 9/5/1999
Parallel Perspectives: Early Twentieth Century American Art, Addison Gallery of American Art, 11/16/1999 - 5/1/2000
Inside and Out: Scenes of American Life from the Addison Collection, Addison Gallery of American Art, 9/26/2000 - 12/31/2000
Art, Artists, and the Addison: Building a Collection, Addison Gallery of American Art, 3/30/2004 - 7/31/2004
Eye on the Collection: Copley to Hopper, Addison Gallery of American Art, 12/21/2004 - 6/12/2005
Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film, 1890-1910, Williams College Museum of Art, 7/16/2005 - 5/20/2007
Eye on the Collection: Views and Viewpoints, Addison Gallery of American Art, 1/19/2008 - 3/23/2008
Inside, Outside, Upstairs, Downstairs: The Addison Anew, Addison Gallery of American Art, 9/7/2010 - 3/27/2011
80 @ 80 , Addison Gallery of American Art, 10/15/2011 - 12/31/2011
Eye on the Collection, Addison Gallery of American Art, 4/27/2013 - 7/31/2013
Eye on the Collection: Artful Poses, Addison Gallery of American Art, 2/1/2014 - 3/30/2014
Exterior Spaces, Interior Places, Addison Gallery of American Art, 9/2/2014 - 1/4/2015
Dance! American Art 1830 - 1960, Detroit Institute of Arts, 3/20/2016 - 1/16/2017
4 x 4, Addison Gallery of American Art, 9/1/2018 - 7/31/2019
Learning to Look: The Addison at 90, Addison Gallery of American Art, 5/8/2021 - 2/6/2022
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