After studying with Thomas Anshutz at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and furthering his training abroad in Germany at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, George Luks traveled throughout Europe, returning to the United States in 1894. He first worked as a newspaper illustrator for Philadelphia journals; in 1896, following the encouragement of fellow illustrators Robert Henri [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?artist=Robert%20Earle%20Henri], John Sloan [35.52], and Everett Shinn [2008.45], who had also studied with Anshutz, he relocated to New York City.
Criticized for his poor handling of the human anatomy, Luks answered his detractors by rendering this complex scene of two nude wrestlers. The artist’s perspective was radical for the time. Luks’s composition effectively presses the viewer to the edge of the wrestling pit, thereby emphasizing the down-at-heels setting. The jarring vantage point also evokes the sweaty underbelly of modern urban life, a theme for which he and fellow members of the Ashcan School would become known.
Luks’s scene of entangled human flesh under duress is reminiscent of the sporting scenes that fellow Philadelphian Thomas Eakins painted, in particular Eakins’s 1899 Wrestlers (Los Angeles County Museum of Art). Whereas Eakins depicted a wrestling hold with the impassive eye of a painter rendering a studio model, Luks conveys the passion exuded by the heaving torsos. Eakins applied carefully blended strokes of pigment, building up solidly modeled forms after the manner of his studio training with the French academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?artist=Jean-L%C3%A9on%20G%C3%A9r%C3%B4me]. Luks, in contrast, enlivens his figures with energetic brushwork and thick impasto. Luks’s familiarity with the popular press, gained from his work for illustrated periodicals, may have inspired the sense of immediacy he suggested—brilliantly illuminated flesh is thrown into relief against the dark background as though caught in a reporter’s flashbulb.
The opponent at the left also recalls the terrifying visages of the early-nineteenth-century Spanish painter Francisco Goya’s so-called Black Paintings (Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid), in which humans are transformed into ghouls. Luks portrays a distinctive type among the multitudes in New York City, in this case an aggressive athlete. Once again, his training as a newspaper illustrator likely honed his astute sensitivity to physiognomy, and here the thickly furrowed brow, devilish eyes, and flushed complexion suggest the bellicose personality befitting a pugnacious wrestler.
This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).