First Comprehensive Retrospective of American Artist George Bellows in Nearly Half a Century on View at Metropolitan Museum – November 15, 2012 – February 18, 2013
George Bellows (1882–1925) was regarded as one of America’s greatest artists when he died, at the age of 42, from a ruptured appendix. His early fame rested on his powerful depictions of boxing matches and gritty scenes of New York City’s tenement life, but he also painted cityscapes, seascapes, war scenes, and portraits, and made illustrations and lithographs that addressed many of the social, political, and cultural issues of the day. Opening November 15 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and featuring some 120 works from his extensive oeuvre, the landmark loan exhibition George Bellows is the first comprehensive retrospective of the artist’s career since 1966. It invites the viewer to experience the dynamic and challenging decades of the early 20th century through the eyes of a brilliant observer. Bellows had close ties to the Metropolitan Museum. He was inspired by paintings in its collection, to which one of his own was added in 1911—when he was only 29 years old—and his first retrospective was the Met’s 1925 memorial exhibition.
Born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, George Bellows attended Ohio State University, where his athletic talents suggested that he might become a professional baseball player and his illustrations for the student yearbook hinted at an artistic calling. In 1904, before graduating, he moved to New York City to study art with Robert Henri, one of America’s most influential teachers in the period. Bellows would become the leading young member of the Ashcan School artists, all of whom Henri inspired. The Ashcan artists aimed to chronicle the realities of daily life, and Bellows was the boldest and most versatile among them in his choice of subjects, palettes, and techniques. Bellows never traveled abroad, but learned the lessons of European masters—such as El Greco, Francisco de Goya, Édouard Manet, and others who nourished Ashcan realism—by studying their works in museums, including the Metropolitan.
When, in 1911, the Metropolitan acquired his canvas Up the Hudson (1908) as its first Ashcan painting, Bellows became one of the youngest artists to be represented in the Museum’s collection. His candid portrayals of New York City, Maine’s rugged coast, boxers in the ring, the atrocities of World War I, friends and family members, and other distinctive themes are among the triumphs of early 20th-century art.
The exhibition is organized thematically, within a chronological framework:
New York, 1905–1908; Boxers and Portraits, 1907–1909; Penn Station and the Hudson River, 1907–1909; Work and Leisure, 1910–16; The Sea, 1911–17; Bellows’s Process, 1912–16; The War, 1918; Bellows’s Process, 1916–23; Family and Friends, 1914–19; and Late Works, 1920–24.
Nearly a third of the exhibition is devoted to scenes of New York City. After painting several scenes of tenement kids enjoying themselves along the banks of Manhattan’s East River, Bellows turned to a popular destination for diverse crowds seeking relief from the summer’s heat on their day off from work.
His Beach at Coney Island (1908, private collection) signals the relaxed moral codes associated with this locale on Brooklyn’s south shore. One leading critic described Bellows’s teeming view as “a distinctly vulgar scene,” not least because of the amorous couple shown embracing in the foreground.
New York (1911, National Gallery of Art), one of Bellows’s few depictions of the heart of the city rather than its edges, captures the tumult of a busy intersection in winter. Looming skyscrapers obliterate all but a tiny patch of sky. Pedestrians of every social class scurry along the sidewalks. Horse-drawn carriages, delivery carts, and trolleys pack the streets. Men with shovels work to remove any trace of the recently fallen snow.
Bellows maintained a lifelong interest in sports, and his many depictions of boxers in the ring are his most familiar and iconic works. Stag at Sharkey’s (1909, Cleveland Museum of Art), depicts a prize fight at Tom Sharkey’s Athletic Club, a popular bar that was located directly across Broadway from Bellows’s studio at 66th Street. Because public prizefighting was illegal in New York at the time, club “members” could buy their way in each evening for a few dollars. The artist’s low vantage point places the viewer almost at ringside.
The Hudson River and adjacent Riverside Park often inspired Bellows. For Rain on the River (1908, Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design), the artist positioned himself on a rocky overlook and showed the river below shrouded in mist. A pedestrian navigates a flooded footpath, and smoke billows around a train that is pulling into a shed. Bellows’s contemporaries, who were accustomed to the light and sunny urban views favored by the American Impressionists, would have been startled by this gritty urban subject.
As Bellows’s reputation grew, his experiences, subject interests, and social contacts expanded. Although many of his paintings concentrate on the world of work, he also recorded the leisure classes, who created a rich visual pageant as they enjoyed promenades in New York’s parks and other genteel activities.
He painted Polo at Lakewood (1910, Columbus Museum of Art) after attending a match on the estate of railroad tycoon Jay Gould, in Lakewood, New Jersey. Bellows was fascinated by the contrast between the game’s violence and the carefully groomed riders, ponies, and spectators.
Bellows focused almost half of his oeuvre on marine and shore views, although these works are not as well-known as his city scenes. He completed Shore House (1911, private collection) — one of his earliest treatments of this sort of subject—from sketches he had made during his recent honeymoon in Montauk. This painting and others like it pay homage to Winslow Homer, some of whose New England seascapes were in the Metropolitan’s collection by 1911 and were available for study. Such works by Bellows, with their celebration of the sea and sense of isolation, remind us that he was a classmate of Edward Hopper (who was also born in 1882), another modern American realist who appreciated Homer’s achievements.
In addition to being a gifted painter, Bellows was one of the most accomplished American lithographers. It is therefore not surprising that he executed the most forceful image of himself as a lithograph.
His Self-portrait(1921, Collection of Max and Heidi Berry) shows him working on a lithographic stone in the balcony studio in his home on East 19th Street. The scalloped edges of the mirror in which he observes himself frame his reflection and remind us of the printmaker’s challenge: to draw in reverse the image he ultimately seeks.
Two rooms in the exhibition demonstrate the importance of lithography in the development of Bellows’s themes. On view will be groupings that show his exploration of a single idea through drawings, prints, and paintings. For example, the charismatic evangelist Billy Sunday preaching to a mass audience is the subject of four works created between 1915 and 1923 in various media.
In 1918, Bellows made five large oils and 16 lithographs that recall alleged atrocities against civilians by the German army at the beginning of World War I. These works invoke the legacy of the Spanish painter Francisco de Goya’s famous depictions of the horrors of the battlefield, Disasters of War (1810–20), which were made a century earlier in response to Napoleon’s invasion of Spain. Goya’s prints were often on display in New York and Bellows would have been aware of them.
In Massacre at Dinant (1918, Greenville County Museum of Art), Bellows refers to the mass murder of 674 civilians by German troops in Belgium. Although the soldiers are barely visible, their bloody bayonets and rifles appear at the left. The bodies of dead women and children fill the foreground, and helpless clergy are shown in the center. Shockingly brutal, Bellows’s war images still resonate with viewers today.
Bellows painted many portraits of women that offer a compelling counterpoint to the violent, predominantly male world that he recorded in his better-known boxing canvases. Bellows’s wife Emma was his artistic muse and he painted her in many guises. He wrote passionately to her: “Can I tell you that your heart is in me and your portrait is in all my work? What can a man say to a woman who absorbs his whole life?”
During what were to be the last years of his life, Bellows spent the summers in Woodstock, New York, a rural arts community in the Catskill Mountains. There he communed with nature, the local townspeople, and a close circle of family and artist-friends. His most important works from the period were the monumental figure paintings he executed with old-master grandeur. Traditional in subject and highly organized in structure, they often referenced well-known paintings that he knew from the Metropolitan Museum’s collection or had seen in reproductions.
Emma and her Children (1923, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) shows his wife and two daughters elegantly attired, sitting on a sofa in an arrangement that calls to mind Auguste Renoir’s Madame Charpentier and her Children, Georgette-Berthe and Paul-Émile-Charles, which entered the Metropolitan’s collection in 1907. Painting this monumental portrait just weeks after his mother died, Bellows enlisted a somber palette and stoic poses that invoke the Old Master canvases he admired more than the lightness of Impressionism.
Dempsey and Firpo (1924, Whitney Museum of American Art), the boxing scene that ends the exhibition, was Bellows’s last masterpiece. It embodies the era’s Machine Age aesthetic and Art Deco sleekness. The questions it raises about a new beginning for his art were, however, never answered. On January 8, 1925, Bellows died from a ruptured appendix. The American author Sherwood Anderson concluded that the artist’s last paintings “keep telling you things. They are telling you that Mr. George Bellows died too young. They are telling you that he was after something, that he was always after it.”
Forty-Two Kids (1907, Corcoran Gallery of Art),
Both Members of This Club, 1909, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Chester Dale Collection
Snow Dumpers (1911, Columbus Museum of Art).
The Big Dory (1913, New Britain Museum of American Art) are among Bellows’ most important seascapes and pay homage to his great American predecessor, Winslow Homer (1836–1910).
Mr. and Mrs. Philip Wase (1924, Smithsonian American Art Museum),
and The White Horse (1924, Worcester Art Museum), will prompt visitors to contemplate the artist Bellows might have become had he lived into the 1960s, as did his friend and contemporary Edward Hopper (1882–1967).
So too will Fisherman’s Family (1923, private collection).