In 1904, George Bellows (1882-1925) arrived in New York City. He was a big six-foot-tall dropout of Ohio State with an equally large personality, and he quickly found his way to his new art mentor, Robert Henri (1865-1929), and to the woman who would become his wife and a favorite painting subject, Emma Louise Story. Henri schooled his students, like Bellows, in the everyday life of New York, pressing them to push beyond the conventional boundaries of both art and the city. He encouraged his students (Bellows, Joseph Stella, Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, among others) to carefully observe the shoreline, construction sites, street life in the tenements, and rowdy rallies in the public squares.
|George Bellows (American, Columbus, Ohio 1882–1925 New York City). Rain on the River, 1908. Oil on canvas, 32 x 38 in. (81.3 x 96.5 cm). Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Jesse Metcalf Fund.|
For Bellows, an artist with creative ambitions and a vigorous intellectual temperament, New York made an ideal subject for his pursuits. During the early years, 1904 to 1909 (the date of Stag at Sharkey's), he rambled up and down the city to take in its myriad spectacles. He returned home to paint the scenes from memory. As a flâneur of insatiable curiosity, he abandoned the main boulevards for the lushness of Riverside Park (Frederick Law Olmsted's park, nearly finished, was a favorite subject), the crowds at Madison Square, the excavation site for Pennsylvania Station, the kids at play on Coney Island, the private clubs where illegal boxing could be staged for paying members, the "river rats" of the East River, and much more. Unlike many other artists of his day, he never traveled to Europe. He remained in the city and studied the masters through frequent trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
|George Bellows (American, Columbus, Ohio 1882–1925 New York City). Stag at Sharkey's, 1909. Oil on canvas, 36 1/4 x 48 1/4 in. (92.1 x 122.6 cm). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Hinman B. Hurlbut Collection, 1133.1922|
His paintings attracted attention from the start, appealing to both conservatives for his adherence to aesthetics and to radical modernists when he broke the rules. By 1910 he had married Emma and moved to a row house at 146 E. 19th Street (on a block near Gramercy Park known as "the Block Beautiful"). He taught drawing and composition at the Art Students League. While he wasn't a society painter, Bellows often painted dreamy scenes of the leisure class at play. A painting such as Summer Night, Riverside Drive (1909) can take your breath away.
|George Bellows (American, Columbus, Ohio 1882–1925 New York City). Summer Night, Riverside Drive. 1909. 35.5 × 47.5 in (90.2 × 120.7 cm). Bequest of Frederick W. Schumacher. Columbus Museum of Art.|
Drawn to a city beset with class consciousness and warfare, Bellows embraced politics in more than a casual fashion. He was a big supporter of the I.W.W. and the anarchists, especially Emma Goldman. Yet, he broke with publisher Max Eastman, refusing to sign the clause that contributors to The Masses support an anti-war stance on the US participation in World War I. He created a war series of vivid tableaux compositions based on newspaper accounts of German soldiers committing war crimes on the citizens of Belgium. A room of these works at the Met contributes greatly to the exhibition's unfolding revisionist story of the artist.
The Bellows exhibit at the Met, originating in Washington, DC at the National Gallery of Art and with a next stop at the Royal Academy of Arts in London (March 16-June 9, 2013), argues that Bellows has too often been folded into the figurative collection of painters known as the Ashcan School. Known for his hard realist knocks, celebrated for a handful of excellent pugilistic scenes, the artist in many ways exemplifies the school. Yet, the curatorial argument (courtesy of Charles Brock, associate curator, American and British paintings, National Gallery of Art) succeeds in singling him out, presenting a compelling visual case for an artist of great breadth and depth.
|George Bellows (American, Columbus, Ohio 1882–1925 New York City). Emma at the Piano, 1914. Oil on panel, 28 3/4 x 37 in. (73 x 94 cm). Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia, Gift of Walter P. Chrysler, Jr.|
Bellows also changed artistically over the course of his life, making large figurative work in his final years that confounds easy understanding. His last major work, Dempsey and Firpo (1924), brought him back to the subject of boxing, but he rendered the prizefight in the style of Art Deco. The exhibit even hints in a loud whisper that Bellows displayed more raw talent than his friend Edward Hooper, a Johnny One-Note of loneliness, at least in comparison. But since Bellows succumbed to an early death, at age 42 in 1925 of a ruptured appendix, and Hopper, born a month before Bellows in 1882, kept on going until 1967, art history has sided with the popular painter of Nighthawks.
|George Bellows (American, Columbus, Ohio 1882–1925 New York City). Dempsey and Firpo, 1924. Oil on canvas, 51 x 63 1/4 in. (129.5 x 160.7 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Purchase, with funds from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.|
Several works stand out in the exhibition, particularly those where Bellows documents historical change in New York City while experimenting with color and composition. With his Excavation series, the artist explored the literal rupture in the Manhattan landscape with the building of the monumental Pennsylvania Railroad Station. Pennsylvania Excavation (1909, below) unearths the construction site from 34th to 35th street and from 7th to 9th Avenues as both an industrialized workplace and a manmade monumental canyon. It is winter. Snow, steam, mud, and soot engulf the canyon. He shows men at work in the foreground, detailing the necessary human labor involved in the project, but these figures also reveal the scale of the enormous project below. Subsequent works in the series depict the rise of McKim, Mead and White's grand Beaux Arts Penn Station (1910). Of course, New Yorkers are so accustomed to discussing the notorious demolition of Penn Station in 1963 that these works complete the famous narrative by providing a beginning.
Bellows maintained his studio in the Lincoln Arcade building on Broadway and 65th Street. Across the street was Tom Sharkey's saloon, the place where the former boxer staged illegal fights. Over subsequent decades, the rough-and-tumble area suffered from economic decline. In the 1950s and 1960s, Robert Moses and civic leaders considered the neighborhood a blighted area. The vast area was torn down and excavated to make way for Lincoln Center. Bellows, of course, was no longer around to observe the excavations. But when he was alive, he was fully alive, and he immortalized people and places when he could.
George Bellows continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through February 18, 2013. Consult the Winter Exhibitions post for comprehensive museum listings.