George Luks, Street Scene (Hester Street)

Visiting the Jewish Lower East Side in 1905

George Benjamin Luks, Street Scene (Hester Street), 1905, oil on canvas, 65.5 x 91.1 cm (Brooklyn Museum, 40.339, Dick S. Ramsay Fund). Speakers: Margarita Karasoulas, Assistant Curator of American Art, Brooklyn Museum and Dr. Steven Zucker

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Luks, Street Scene

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Key ideas

  • Between 1880 and 1920, more than 20 million immigrants came to America, making it the greatest period of mass migration in American history. Many recent Jewish immigrants had fled economic hardship and political violence within the Russian Empire.
  • At the time Luks painted Street Scene, New York’s Lower East Side was home to approximately 500,000 Jewish immigrants, and it was the most densely populated place on earth. The tenement buildings that surround the scene blot out all but a small sliver of blue sky, adding to this painting’s sense of the congestion of this neighborhood.
  • With growing Jewish immigration came rising nativist and antisemitic sentiment. While members of the Ashcan School, like George Luks, were revolutionary in their inclusion of unidealized urban subjects, their paintings preserved stereotypes and unequal dynamics of power. Luks had produced antisemitic caricatures for several publications during the 1890s, and the emphasis on racist stereotypes about Jewish phyisognomy can be seen in the painting.

Go deeper

A short biography of Luks at the National Gallery

A teaching guide and resources on the Lower East Side from the New York Public Library

Tenement Museum web page on the Lower East Side

Primary sources related to Jewish immigration from the Library of Congress

Read more about Jewish immigration in the wake of the pogroms

Read about immigration through Ellis Island

Take a virtual tour of Ellis Island

Watch a 1903 movie documenting a market on the Lower East side

More to think about

Look closely at Street Scene. What aspects of the painting do you think reveal the nativist and antisemitic sentiments the video mentions? What aspects humanize the people? How do modern images of immigration deal with similar issues?

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.