American artists who were intent on describing the spectacle of contemporary life during the first decades of the twentieth century often chose circus themes and clowns as their subjects. John Sloan, Everett Shinn, Walt Kuhn, and George Luks were among the many painters who identified with clowns, whom they saw as critics, outcasts, or enchanters-roles also filled by artists. Luks was no stranger to the kind of entertainment provided by clowns and even to the makeup they wore. In his late teens and early twenties, Luks and his brother, Will, had toured Pennsylvania and New Jersey with a minstrel show in an act called “Buzzey and Anstock” in which they sang, played guitar, and told jokes, performing in full costume with face paint. Even Luks’s behavior had clownish aspects: a heavy-drinker, inveterate story-teller, and street brawler, Luks was described by his fellow Ashcan painter, Everett Shinn, as “a circus in one” and “the clown who had found the circus ring too small and had dragged his antics out into the streets,” (“Everett Shinn on George Luks: An Unpublished Memoir,” Archives of American Art, April 1966, p. 5).
Luks’s immediate inspiration to paint “A Clown” may have been the success of an exhibition entitled “Circus in Paint,” which Juliana Force had organized at the Whitney Studio Club in April 1929. He also may have been motivated by a visit to a fair in Hadlyme, Connecticut in the late 1920s (Pierre Théberge, “The Great Parade: Portrait of the Artist as Clown,” New Haven, Yale University Press, 2004, p. 155). However, circus themes were part of Luks’s work much earlier in his career when he had been an artist-reporter, cartoonist, and illustrator. “Circus Scene” (gouache, Sordoni Art Gallery, Wilkes College) from 1895 shows a clown confronting a little boy. A cartoon by Luks entitled “The Animals Start a Circus and Make the Men Perform” appeared in the April 12, 1896 edition of the “New York World.” In 1911 he painted (and then altered in 1923) a portrait entitled “Jack and Russell Burke” (Museum of Art Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute), in which the young boys are dressed in bright orange and yellow clown costumes. Luks continued with circus themes after 1929. In about 1932 he painted “Entr’acte” (location unknown) showing a kindly-looking clown holding a boy on his lap. As with his street urchins and old women, Luks painted his clowns sympathetically. He clearly identified with these circus performers who made people laugh but were serious and perhaps melancholic within.
Contrary to the usual perception of the Big Top performer and to Luks’s own reputation as a joker and comedian, Luks depicted the figure in “A Clown” as dignified and serious. He seems to be seated on a couch conversing with an unseen companion. To evoke the atmosphere of a circus, Luks employed brilliant color in defined shapes that form a decorative abstract pattern around the clown’s head; the daisy he holds is the only note of whimsy. The resulting image is striking, and as a result, Luk’s painting was chosen as the cover image for the magazine “The Arts” in May 1930. In turn, painter Jan Matulka used that journal as one of the elements in his own “Still Life Composition” in about 1933 or 1934 (Smithsonian American Art Museum), probably to pay tribute to the older artist who had given him much needed encouragement early in his career, (Edward Alden Jewell, “Jan Matulka,” New York Times, March 3, 1929, p. X13).
John T. Spaulding, a Boston collector whose family made their fortune from sugar refining, bought “A Clown” from Luks’s New York dealer, Frank K. M. Rehn. Spaulding paid the princely sum of $4,000 (almost $50,000 in today’s currency) for the painting in December 1929, just two months after the stock market crash. He bequeathed “A Clown” to the MFA with the rest of his outstanding collection in 1948. Today Luks’s bold image has lost none of its power -“A Clown” was chosen for the cover of “The Great Parade: Portrait of the Artist as Clown,” an exhibition catalogue from 2004.