A Comprehensive Look at George Bellows
A work of art can be any imaginable thing, and this is the beginning of modern painting.
— George Bellows, 1923
George Bellows, a sprawling retrospective at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, is nothing if not comprehensive. The show, which closes on February 18, pays tribute to the versatility of one of the leading members of the Ashcan School, who died prematurely of a ruptured appendix at the age of 42.
Most of us think of George Bellows (1882-1925) as a realist painter of tough, gritty working-class subjects — boxers duking it out in shady athletic clubs, tenement kids from New York’s Lower East Side swimming in the East River. But as this well-curated show of 100 works takes pains to illustrate, Bellows had extraordinary range and energy. He painted urban landscapes, but bucolic ones too. And he painted seascapes and portraits (genteel ladies and common folk alike), New York City’s parks, rivers and beaches, in addition to suburban polo grounds and Newport’s tennis casino.
A six-foot-tall athlete with a talent for baseball, he dropped out of Ohio State in 1904 at the end of his junior year and moved to New York, where he hoped to find work as an illustrator. He immediately came under the influence of Robert Henri (1865-1929), the founder of the rebel American art group The Eight and a teacher at the New York School of Art, where Bellows enrolled.
Henri became a life-long mentor. He urged his students to cast off the fussy precepts of the conservative National Academy of Design and enter the modern world. Art was “close at hand, waiting to be discovered within the teeming grid of New York City,” Charles Brock writes in an introductory essay in the show’s catalogue. “Henri encouraged his students to experience this new life directly and on their own terms, and to forge their own individual styles in response to it.”
In his early period, Bellows painted his subjects from memory, rarely using models or drawings. He would take long walks with his artist-friend Eugene Speicher, taking the measure of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Bowery and the docks along the East River, and recording his impressions later on canvas at his studio.
His paintings of slum dwellers, dock workers and urban realities inspired the label “Ashcan School,” Brock writes, but he was not actually a member of Henri’s pioneering group The Eight, which had a groundbreaking show at the Macbeth Gallery in 1908. His work departed from academic tradition on the one hand, and was rooted in it on the other. He drew critical inspiration from the European Masters — El Greco, Goya, Hals, Velazquez, and Manet — whose work he studied at museums, especially The Metropolitan Museum. But he never actually traveled outside the US to study the works of the Europeans.
“[I]nsider and outsider, old master and young innovator,” Bellows painted it like he saw it, notably chronicling the construction of New York’s Pennsylvania Railroad Station in a series of dramatic excavation canvases that depict nothing other than a void — a giant hole — in vivid contrast to his crowd pictures of Coney Island, Madison Square Park, Times Square and the Lower East Side.
His subject matter and style worked hand in hand. He employed quick, rough brushstrokes that conveyed energy and verve, none so much as in his boxing series, which he worked on from 1907 to 1909. Stag at Sharkey’s (1909), completed when he was just 27, is one of his most famous works. A prizefight set in retired fighter Tom Sharkey’s athletic club — a bar near Bellows’ studio at Broadway and 66th Street — the painting shows two pugilists locked in a violent struggle. The low vantage point gives viewers the feeling of being close to the action. The boxers and the referee, full-figured renderings, are bathed in a bright light that serves to heighten the drama between the ropes; virtually all else fades to black, and we are left to gaze at naked male aggression. “I just wanted to paint two men trying to kill each other,” he said.
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