Born and raised until age seven in Brooklyn, New York and then in Belleport, Long Island in genteel upper class surroundings, he became a figure painter whose work reflects both his privileged circumstances and understanding of those less comfortable. His subjects, often of mixed sexual and racial features, are often obscured by heavy clothing and appear sagging and shapeless, trapped within their own dull worlds.
Some critics have described his style as "magic realism," but he was not interested in the illusionary effects that many of the painters of that style espouse. He has regarded himself as more of a reporter or observer of society than an interpreter.
He took art lessons from Barbizon style painter, Malcolm Frazier, a friend of his mother and then attended Phillips Academy, a prep school, in Andover, Massachusetts where he had his first experience with lower classes because of his visits to the nearby textile community of Lawrence and Lowell.
He went to Harvard University where he studied English Literature but spent much time at the Fogg Art Museum. He was also active in socialist conscious organizations and distributed literature for radical political groups. In 1942, he graduated from Harvard and then entered the Marine Corps but was discharged due to a physical problem.
He studied at the Art Students League in New York City, beginning 1943 with Reginald Marsh. He also studied with Kenneth Hayes Miller and Harry Sternberg and in 1946, began spending time with Paul Cadmus as friend and pupil. Cadmus encouraged Tooker to work with tempera rather than the transparent wash technique taught by Marsh.
Tooker subsequently adopted a method of using egg yolk thickened slightly with water and then adding powdered pigment, a medium that was quick drying, tedious to apply, and hard to change once applied.
Fascinated by geometric design and symmetry, he works slowly, completely about two paintings a year because he spends much time searching for the underlying idea.
From 1965 to 1968, he taught at the Art Students League but lived the later part of his life between Hartland, Vermont and Malaga, Spain. His first one-man exhibition was at the Edwin Hewitt Gallery in New York in 1951.
He was elected to the National Academy of Design in 1968 and was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2007, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts. Tooker lived for many years in Hartland, Vermont.
2001 Cadmus, French, Tooker, Columbus Museum of Art Columbus, OH
2000 Making Choices 1929-1955, The Museum of Modern Art New York, NY
2000 George Tooker, Hart Gallery at the Guild Art Centre Northhampton, MA
1999 The American Century 1900-1950, Whitney Museum of American Art New York, NY
1998 George Tooker, DC Moore Gallery New York, NY
1997 Civil Progress: Images of Black America, Mary Ryan Gallery New York, NY
1997 Views from Abroad: European Perspectives on American Art 3 - American Realities, Tate Gallery London
1996 Reality and Dream: The Art of George Tooker, Ogunquit Museum of American Art Maine
1992 Tooker's Women, Marisa Del Re Gallery New York, NY
1990 Cadmus, French & Tooker: The Early Years, Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris New York, NY
1989 George Tooker: Paintings and Drawings, 1946-1989, Marsh Gallery, University of Richmond Richmond, VA
1987 George Tooker: Working Drawings, Robert Hull Fleming Museum, University of Vermont Burlington, VT
1985 Surreal City, 1930-1950, Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris New York, NY
1982 Homo Sapiens, the Many Images, Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art Ridgefield, CT
1974 George Tooker: Paintings 1947-1973, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco San Francisco, CA
1969 Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting, Whitney Museum of Art New York, NY
1964 Durlacher Brothers New York, NY
1963 Paintings from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, National Gallery of Art Washington, DC
1960 Robert Isaacson Gallery New York, NY
1958 Festival of Two Worlds, Spoleto, Italy
1953 Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting, Whitney Museum of American Art New York, NY
1951 Edwin Hewitt Gallery New York, NY
1949 Painting in the United States, 1949, Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute Pittsburgh, PA
1946 Fifteen Americans, Museum of Modern Art New York, NY