Unable to join the armed forces during World War I, Duncan Phillips was determined to find ways for American art and artists to serve the cause; thus, he organized exhibitions, including a huge Allied War Salon of 1918, held at the American Art Galleries, New York. In general, the war-theme paintings were disappointing to critics, but Luks's Blue Devils on Fifth Avenue (1918) was a brilliant exception. Phillips bought the painting in 1918 and for the next decade continued to buy, borrow, trade, and return paintings as he shaped the Luks unit. In the end he retained a strong group of five oils and two watercolors that reflect the variety of the artist's work over much of his career—from the time of his early, impressionist-influenced watercolor, Verdun, France, (c. 1915) to Mining Village No. 3 (1923) a watercolor depicting the Pennsylvania coal mining country, the source of many compositions of the l920s. The oil paintings reveal typical Luks subjects and represent the diversity of the artist's style and mood: a bold New York street scene in Blue Devils on Fifth Avenue; the Manet-like patterning of a figure study in the imposing Dominican (1912); the Hals-inspired bravura of Otis Skinner as Colonel Philippe Bridau, (1919); the humorously treated, heavily pigmented Sulky Boy (ca. 1908); and the dark, ironic intimacy of Telling Fortunes (1914), one of his humorous studies of low-life characters.
The artist's temperament was dynamic—in turn lusty, tender, brawling, and dignified—and his wit, vitality, and talent attracted Phillips. After purchasing Blue Devils on Fifth Avenue, Phillips was inspired to commission the artist to portray Otis Skinner in l9l9. The Skinner portrait, Otis Skinner as Colonel Philippe Bridau, was an enormous success, and the next year Phillips purchased two more paintings, followed by other acquisitions over the next few years.
Although Luks was the most uneven and unpredictable of artists, his talents roused a strong if guarded enthusiasm in Phillips, whose "brief estimate" of Luks is perceptive and generous:
He is an individualist with a buoyant belief in his own genius and gusto in his copious enjoyments of his chosen subjects. The genius is unmistakable, but the gusto and self-satisfaction are not restrained by serious discipline and consequently Luks is an exasperating technician. …When in full swing he can paint as well as Courbet, surpassing him in space composition and his rival in rich impasto, ponderable form, acceptance of life for its own sake, and bold commentary ….