Skip to main content

George Bellows in New York: Rambles and Excavations

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.

George Bellows (American, Columbus, Ohio 1882–1925 New York City). Massacre at Dinant, 1918. Oil on canvas, 49 1/2 x 83 in. (125.7 x 210.8 cm). Greenville County Museum of Art, South Carolina, Gift of Minor M. Shaw, Buck A. Mickel, and Charles C.Mickel; and the Arthur and Holly Magill Fund.

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 Hopper, 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.

George Bellows (American, Columbus, Ohio 1882–1925 New York City). Pennsylvania Excavation, 1907. Oil on canvas, 33 7/8 x 44 in. (86 x 111.8 cm). Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts. Gift of Mary Gordon Roberts, class of 1960, in honor of her 50th reunion.

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.

Comments

Teri, once again visiting your site is exquisite torture. This is another show I'm going to miss. Dang. Thanks for the thoughtful writing. And for making me rethink an artist I thought I had pegged.

Popular posts from this blog

Museums in New York Open on Mondays

Please see this post for current announcements of reopenings . Please consult the museum websites for changes in days and hours. UPDATED September 23, 2020 Advance tickets required for many museum reopenings. Please check museum websites for details. • The  Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)  reopened to the public on  August 27 , with new hours for the first month, through September 27: from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday to the public; and from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.  on Mondays for MoMA members on ly. Admission will be free to all visitors Tuesday through Sunday, through September 27, made possible by UNIQLO. See this  new post on WOTBA for a sense of the experience attending the museum . •  New-York Historical Society  reopened on  August 14  with an outdoor exhibition, "Hope Wanted: New York City Under Quarantine,” in the rear courtyard. The exhibit by activist Kevin Powell and photographer Kay Hickman will highlight how New Yorkers weathered the quarantine

North Towards Autumn: A Day Trip on the Metro-North Hudson Line

The peak of autumn colors in New York City tends to fall sometime in the days following Halloween, but those anxiously waiting leaf change can simply travel north.  Near Beacon, a view of autumn colors from the Metro-North Hudson line One way to speed the fall season is to take the Hudson line of Metro-North north of the city and watch the greens fade to oranges and yellows and the occasional burst of red.  Autumn light in Hastings-on-Hudson Weekends during the month of October are ideal times to make the trip. The air tends to be crisp with bright blue skies, and the Hudson River glimmers like a mirror in the light of autumn. As the Hudson line hugs the river for much of the distance north, the train ride alone provides plenty of opportunities for sightseeing. Try to grab a window seat on the river side of the train car for views of the Palisades and the bends of the Hudson Highlands later in the trip.   Autumn leaves on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail in Hastings Still, October is a gr

25 Things To Do Near the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

(updated 2016) The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) at 11 W. 53rd Street is near many other New York City attractions, so before or after a trip to the museum, a short walk in any direction could easily take in additional experiences. Drawing a square on a map with the museum at the center, a shape bounded by 58th Street to the north and 48th Street to the south, with 7th Avenue to the west and Park Avenue to the east, proves the point of the area's cultural richness. (A map follows the list below.) While well-known sightseeing stops fall with these boundaries, most notably Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick's Cathedral, and the great swath of famous Fifth Avenue stores, cultural visitors may also want to check out places such as the Austrian Cultural Forum, the 57th Street galleries, the Onassis Cultural Center, and the Municipal Art Society. The image above shows an intriguing glimpse of the tops of two Beaux-Arts buildings through an opening of the wall inside MoMA's scu

Taking a Constitutional Walk

A long time ago individuals going out for a walk, especially to get fresh air and exercise, often referred to the activity as "taking a constitutional walk." The word "constitutional" refers to one's constitution or physical makeup, so a constitutional walk was considered beneficial to one's overall wellbeing. (Or, as some would prefer to call it, "wellness.") The phrase is more common in British literature than in American letters. As early as the mid-nineteenth century, many American commentators expressed concern that their countrymen were falling into lazy and unhealthy habits. Newspaper columnists and editorial writers urged their readers to take up the practice of the "constitutional" walk. One such essay, " Walking as an Exercise," originally printed in the Philadelphia Gazette and reprinted in New England Farmer , Volume 11, 1859, urges the people of farm areas to take up walking. City dwellers seemed to have the

The High Line and Chelsea Market: A Good Pairing for a Walk

(revised 2017) The advent of spring, with its signs of growth and rebirth, is apparent both on the High Line , where volunteers are cutting away the old growth to reveal fresh blooms, and inside the Chelsea Market, where new tenants are revitalizing the space. A walk to take in both can become an exploration of bounty and surprise, a sensual walk of adventure and sustenance. A good pairing for a walk: The High Line and Chelsea Market Walking the High Line for a round trip from Gansevoort to W. 30th and then back again adds up to a healthy 2-mile walk. Regular walkers of the elevated park look for an excuse to go there. Especially delightful is showing off the park, a model of its kind, to visitors from out of town. A stroll through Chelsea Market. Time check. If you haven't stopped into Chelsea Market lately, you may want to take a detour from the High Line at the stairs on W. 16th St. and walk through the market for a quick assessment or a sampling. Among the sampli

25 Radical Things to Do in Greenwich Village

A list of 25 things to Do in Greenwich Village with history of protest, old cafes, and signs of change. Hipstamatic iPhone images of contemporary Greenwich Village by Walking Off the Big Apple (Revised and updated.) Flipping through  Greenwich Village: A Photographic Guide by Edmund T. Delaney and Charles Lockwood with photographs by George Roos, a second, revised edition published in 1976, it’s easy to compare the black and white images with the look of today’s neighborhood and see how much the Village has changed. A long shot photograph of Washington Square taken up high from an apartment north of the park, and with the looming two towers of the World Trade Center off to the distant south in the background, reveals a different landscape than what we would encounter today.    On the north side of the park, an empty lot and two small buildings have since given way to NYU’s Kimmel Center and a new NYU Center for Academic and Spiritual Center Life. The Judson Memorial Church

25 Things to Do Near the Metropolitan Museum of Art

(updated) Sitting on the steps in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of those iconic things to do in New York City. On a sunny day, the wide steps can become crowded with the young and old, the tourist and the resident. It's tempting to stay awhile and soak in the sun and the sights. Everyone has reasons for lingering there, with one being the shared pleasure of people watching along this expansive stretch of Fifth Avenue, a painting come to life. Certainly, just getting off one's feet for a moment is welcome, especially if the previous hours involved walking through the entirety of art history from prehistoric to the contemporary. The entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue The Metropolitan Museum of Art should be a singular pilgrimage, uninterrupted by feeble attempts to take in more exhibitions along Museum Mile. Pity the poor visitor who tries "to do" multiple museum exhibitions in one day, albeit ambitious, noble, and uplift

From Penn Station to New York Landmarks: Measuring Walking Distance and Time in Manhattan

(revised 2017) How long does it take to walk from Penn Station/Madison Square Garden to well-known destinations in Manhattan? What are the best walking routes ? What if I don't want to see anything in particular but just want to walk around? In addition to the thousands of working commuters from the surrounding area, especially from New Jersey and Long Island who arrive at Penn Station via New Jersey Transit or the Long Island Rail Road, many people arrive at the station just to spend time in The City. Some have questions. Furthermore, a sporting event may have brought you to Madison Square Garden (above Penn Station), and you want to check out what the city offers near the event. This post if for you.  The map below should help you measure walking distances and times from the station to well-known destinations in Manhattan - Bryant Park , the Metropolitan Museum of Art , the Empire State Building , Times Square , Rockefeller Center , Washington Square Park , the High Line

A Walk in the Forest Primeval

Contemplating the fall of civilizations in Inwood Hill Park At times, it feels like we’re living at the end of civilization. With the arrival of the global pandemic, many governing structures are teetering at a breaking point, one measured in graphs, curves, and waves. Whole systems like mass transit and global trade are fractured as well. Steps leading to a high ridge trail in Inwood Hill Park Most threatened are our social arrangements, the ones in which most of us were socialized. The norms of human interaction are shockingly in tatters these days. Just three months ago, it was normal to hang out with others in person without worrying if being in one another’s presence would cause illness or possibly death. Political and economic structures are teetering, with a critical collapse of what was once known as the public space. A Baltimore Oriole visits a tree near the main entrance of Inwood Hill Park on Seaman Avenue. It’s easy to imagine a swift evacuation of once pr

From Manhattan to the Bronx: A Walk Over the Henry Hudson Bridge to Henry Hudson Park

At the tiptop of Manhattan Island, Inwood Hill Park offers picturesque views of the Hudson River. For one of the best views, follow the marker at Shorakkopoch Rock (see map at the end of the post), the legendary place where Peter Minuit was said to have bought the island for 60 guilders, and follow the ridge up the slope. The path leads gently higher and higher, with views of the Salt Marsh down below and then the underside of the Henry Hudson Bridg e above. This spot along the ridge is well known among birders, as the height and the proximity to the Hudson River allow access to treetops and places where birds like to go.  View of Henry Hudson Bridge from Muscota Marsh in Inwood Hill Park. Look for the path on the left that leads up and under the bridge. This post will explain how to cross the bridge on foot. Keep going around the bend and past the bridge. A few spots of open pavement at the edge of the hill provide good views of the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge, a swing bridge