George Tooker’ was born in Brooklyn to Angela Montejo Roura (1892–1960) and George Clair Tooker Sr. (1887–1951), the family, including younger sister Mary, moved to Bellport, Long Island, when George was six years old. His father, with French and English family roots, was a bond salesman. His mother’s family had a more exotic story. Well-to-do in Spain, they had moved to Cuba for political reasons, and then later to America, again driven out by political upheaval. Although Catholic when they arrived in 1867, they found the overwhelmingly Irish New York Catholic Church unwelcoming to Latins. Tooker was proud of his Spanish heritage. The Tookers were church-going Episcopalians when George was growing up. Bellport, 67 miles west of New York City on the Great South Bay facing Fire Island, developed in the mid-nineteenth century as a luxury resort. By the turn of the century, it had become more middle class, with one of the old hotels purchased by the Jewish Working Girls Vacation Society of New York. In 1911, William Glackens and his family began renting a summer cottage there, returning every year through 1916. Glackens found the shoreline, dotted with scenic bathing beaches, a ready subject for his art. The Glackenses were happy to join a small but congenial summer colony of artist and writers in the neighborhood. The combination of affordability, culture, and a train connection to New York City made Bellport attractive.
Soon after the Tooker family arrived, George began taking lessons from Malcolm Fraser (1868–1949, a nearby artist who became a family friend. The boy was clearly a precocious talent. Bellport, however, had its shortcomings. When the principal of the local high school advised George’s parents that the school “wasn’t equipped to send students to college” (p. 62), his parents responded by enrolling him for his final two years at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.
Tooker graduated from Phillips Academy in 1938, and although he already knew he wanted to be an artist, he followed his parents’ wishes and enrolled at Harvard. The 1940s proved a life-shaping decade. In 1942, George Tooker graduated from Harvard College with a major in English. Enlisting in the Marine Corps, he was sent to Quantico, Virginia, to Officer Training School, but lasted only a few months before being discharged for a stress-induced flare up of ulcerative colitis.
Tooker was never a deliberate rebel; he accommodated when he could, but in the end, and for all the rest of his life, he found quiet ways to resist, to be the person he needed to be. This included, importantly, living his life as a gay male. It is worth remembering that New York City “liberalized” its anti-sodomy laws in 1950, reducing the charge from a felony to a misdemeanor. It was not until between 1980 and 2000 that the last vestige of these laws was invalidated by the State courts. In Vermont, where Tooker lived after 1960, that milestone was achieved in 1977. These were the years of George Tooker’s adulthood.
From 1943 to 1945, with his parents’ support, Tooker enrolled at the Art Students League in New York to study with Yale-educated Reginald Marsh (1898–1954), a figurative painter whose preferred medium was egg tempera. Marsh, in turn, had trained at the League with Kenneth Hayes Miller (1876–1952), an influential teacher, who, as the tide of abstraction swept through twentieth-century art, resolutely looked back to Renaissance models as his inspiration for painting contemporary subjects. This was George Tooker’s art pedigree. It was reinforced at the League by his introduction to Paul Cadmus (1904–1999) and Jared French (1905–1988), older men who were both figurative painters using the medium of egg tempera.
The connection with Cadmus and French was more than professional. Paul Cadmus was a part of a social circle that included his brother-in-law, Lincoln Kirstein (married to Fidelma Cadmus), his friends, artists Margaret and Jared French, Museum of Modern Art curator Monroe Wheeler, and the photographer George Platt Lynes, among others. Sexually free in multiple configurations, beginning in the late 1930s these artists spent their summers in Saltaire on Fire Island, in Provincetown and Truro on Cape Cod, and on Nantucket. Calling their group PaJaMa (for Paul Jared and Margaret), they documented their leisure with a group of homoerotic photographs and easel paintings celebrating the nude male body. By 1945, George Tooker had joined them. In New York, they gathered around the East 19th Street townhouse of Lincoln Kirstein, the art and ballet patron and impresario whose family money derived from his father’s ownership share in the Boston department store, Filenes. Lynes had gone to high school with Kirstein and dropped out of Yale. French was a graduate of Amherst; Kirstein and Tooker were Harvard men. Money, social status, and a cocooned existence within a cultural elite allowed these artists the latitude to practice their unconventional lifestyle in a way that was an open secret.
French and Cadmus had met at the Art Students League in 1926 and were lovers for twenty-five years. The relationship was punctuated, but not ended, by French’s 1937 marriage to fellow artist Margaret Hoenig and by Cadmus’s affair, from the mid-1940s to 1949, with George Tooker. Neither legal marriage nor changing sexual partners disrupted friendships as alliances shifted and re-formed.
In 1945, still supported by his parents, Tooker moved into a cold-water flat on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. Kirstein championed Tooker, pressing curator Dorothy Miller to include him in 14 Americans, a landmark 1946 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1954, Kirstein brokered a commission for Tooker to design the stage sets for Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera, The Saint of Bleeker Street. Tooker created the set designs from the memory of his Bleecker Street apartment. In 1949, Tooker moved into an illegal loft on West 18th Street with artist and cabinet maker William Christopher (1924–1973), whom he had met casually through his extended circle of friends. Christopher and Tooker became life partners, at first making custom furniture to support themselves and their art. In 1953, alerted by Tooker’s sister who had become a Brooklyn real estate agent, Tooker and Christopher bought a rundown building on State Street in Brooklyn Heights. Once an elegant home, now a rooming house, they renovated it, living near Tooker’s sister and his mother. They remained in Brooklyn until Tooker’s mother died in 1960.
In 1960, Tooker and Christopher moved permanently to what had begun as a weekend retreat in Hartland, Vermont, near their friends Jared and Margaret French and Paul Cadmus. In the late 1950s they had purchased land and acquired an old barn which they disassembled and moved to their property, using its lumber to build their own house. In Vermont, both men painted while they supplemented their income with salaries from part-time teaching: Christopher at Dartmouth, and Tooker at the Art Students League from 1965 to 1968. William Christopher was a southerner, born in Georgia and reared, as was not uncommon, primarily with the family of his beloved African American caretaker. In 1955, he began following the growing movement for Civil Rights in the South, and especially the leadership activities of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Christopher was a co-founder of the Dartmouth chapter of the NAACP. In 1963, he decided to dedicate his year’s work to Dr. King, creating a series of paintings that examined African American identity in white America. He contacted Dr. King, and met him in Boston in 1964, giving him one of the paintings. In 1965, as King was planning to march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, in support of voter’s rights, his staff contacted Christopher and invited the artist to join the march and display his King series in Montgomery. Christopher, Tooker, and a friend from Dartmouth drove South and played their part in that historic event.
While Christopher took the activist role in the 1960s, Tooker was also no stranger to political involvement. By his own account, he had briefly been a member of the Young Communist League at Harvard, leaving because he could not endure its boring meetings. His best-known paintings of the 1950s offered a critical view of American society, among them The Subway (1950, The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York); Government Bureau (1956, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York); and The Waiting Room (1959, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.). In all these Tooker’s Americans are lonely, isolated in a crowd, beaten down, subject to rule by faceless bureaucrats and lacking agency to assert or defend themselves in public situations. Tooker understood these as protest pictures. While Tooker’s social commentary moderated over the years, his paintings, as a matter of course, included sensitive, non-stereotypical images of African Americans and Latins. Tooker’s Supper (1963–65, Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, New York), is a contemporary imagining of the supper at Emmaus as related in the Gospel of Luke, when two disciples invite a stranger to share a meal with them and then recognize the stranger as the resurrected Jesus. Tooker’s Jesus, seated at center and blessing a loaf of bread is an African American.
In 1968, as the Vermont winters became too hard for Christopher, who had a lifelong heart condition, the couple began to spend six months a year in Malaga, Spain. Christopher died of a heart attack in Spain in 1973, and after settling matters, Tooker returned to Vermont. He was, by his own description, “in trouble.” The pair had always been religious. While Tooker’s Vermont Episcopal church was undergoing renovation, he began visiting the local Catholic parish, St. Francis of Assisi Church. In 1976, he formally converted, becoming a daily congregant.
During their lifetimes, French, Cadmus, and Tooker often exhibited in the same group shows, packaged together as “symbolic realists,” “magic realists,” or “metaphysical painters.” In 1990, the Whitney Museum of American Art featured the work of the three artists in an exhibition titled Cadmus, French & Tooker: The Early Years, adding the label of Surrealism into the equation. Tooker enjoyed a solid, respectable, and modestly successful career seeing major paintings acquired for the collections of prominent museums. A slow, but steady worker, he painted a total of about 155 works. After his launch into the art world as part of a bohemian social circle in the grand artist tradition of épater la bourgeoisie, after 1950, Tooker lived a quiet and private life with his partner. It suited him.