George Luks, a realist painter associated with Robert Henri and the Ashcan school, chose the crowded streets of New York City, and the urban and rural poor as his subjects. He is noted for his broadly-brushed paintings of miners, elderly women, immigrant children, and wrestlers (see 45.9). In a lesser-known chapter of his life, Luks painted more than a dozen oils and watercolors during an extended visit to Boston in 1922 and 1923. He was the guest of a former student, Margarett Sargent McKean, a cousin of John Singer Sargent and an aspiring artist. Margarett Sargent had been an apprentice of sculptor Gutzon Borglum in 1917, when she met Luks and began to study painting with him. By the late 1920s, she was painting strikingly modernist oils and began to exhibit her work at Kraushaar Galleries in New York.
In 1922 Luks, fresh from a sanitarium where he was recovering from a bout with alcohol and recently divorced from his second wife, visited Sargent. By this time she was married to Quincy Adams Shaw McKean, a private banker in Boston. She later recalled that Luks had come to visit her for a weekend, but had stayed for almost a year. Not only did McKean provide living quarters for Luks, she also allowed him the use of her studio at 30 St. Botolph Street and organized an exhibition of his work in her summer home in Beverly, Massachusetts.
McKean remembered that Luks disdained the Boston painters who remained in their prim studios painting hired nude models. He exclaimed, “Why didn’t they look at Beacon Hill, Commonwealth Avenue, the Swan Boats, fruit vendors on Charles Street, the squalor of St. Botolph Street and the vigorous L. Street Brownies?” (Margarett Sargent McKean, “George Luks,” Boston: Joan Peterson Gallery, 1966, brochure in MFA American paintings files). Luks threw himself into painting these subjects in Boston (see 60.538 and 1979.263). In “Noontime, St. Botolph Street, Boston,” he depicted the scene outside Margarett’s studio at midday when the shadows cast by the awnings were very pronounced against the old-fashioned bow-front facades of the buildings. These elliptical bays protruding from the structures on St. Botolph Street and elsewhere in the Back Bay and the South End were constructed beginning in the 1840s. They were peculiar to Boston and almost unknown in Luks’s New York City. St. Botolph Street is situated between the Back Bay and South End sections of Boston. Laid out in the early 1880s, St. Botolph Street initially attracted middleclass residents. By the early 1920s when Luks was painting in the area, most of the middleclass families had moved to the suburbs, the neighborhood had become more Bohemian, and many of the townhouses had been turned into lodging houses.
In addition to painting the striped awnings against the yellow- and red-brick facades on St. Botolph Street, Luks also included an iceman carrying a block of ice with tongs. To the left is probably a part of the ice wagon’s wheel. Before refrigerators were introduced into most homes in the 1930s, food was stored in iceboxes, and blocks of ice were delivered door to door by an iceman. Luks’s inclusion of this unglamorous figure was typical of the Ashcan school artists, who made working people, from longshoremen to scrubwomen, the subjects of their pictures. Luks painted a related work entitled “St. Botolph Street,” depicting women sitting on their stoops socializing on a summer’s evening (“Skinner: American and European Paintings,” May 8, 1998, lot 220).
Margarett Sargent McKean and her husband acquired many of Luks’s Boston paintings, including “Noontime, St. Botolph Street, Boston.” In 1960 the Museum purchased two of Luks’s Boston pictures, the present painting and “View of Beacon Street from Boston Common” (60.538).