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George Bellows

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George Bellows
(Columbus, Ohio, 1882 - 1925, New York, New York)

George Wesley Bellows was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1882. His family (particularly his mother) encouraged him to take up drawing at an early age, however once he started school, his peers teased him about his artistic activities. In order to “fit in”, Bellows took up baseball, which he would go on to play semi-professionally after attending Ohio State University.(1) Despite his ongoing interest in sports, Bellows never lost his love of art or his dream of becoming a professional artist. He was inspired by one of his teachers at Ohio State, Associate Professor of Literature Joseph Russell Taylor, to pursue his dreams of an art career, and in 1904 he moved to New York to study art at the New York School of Art under Robert Henri. (2) There, Henri’s approach to art invigorated other young artist/contemporaries of Bellows’s: Guy Pene duBois, Gifford Beal, Rockwell Kent and Edward Hopper, among others. Henri gave instruction, but was essentially an encouraging presence to his students, prompting them to seek their own inspiration through the experience of daily life. Although not formally associated with Henri’s group known as The Eight, Bellows adopted the subjects and artistic approaches of its members including John Sloan and George Luks.

Bellows career took a different path from many of his compatriots. Unlike many of Henri’s other “modernist” students, he found acceptance into juried National Academy of Design shows for his portraits and urban scenes. In 1907 he entered a painting titled Stag at Sharkey’s in the Winter Exhibition of the National Academy. North River (1908, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts), won second prize in the Academy’s Spring Exhibition of 1908. Slowly, his reputation grew, and he exhibited in many prominent annual juried exhibitions as well as museum exhibitions in the northeast and Midwest. He won subsequent prizes, and his work sold steadily enough to enable him to marry in 1910. He became a successful illustrator, his drawings reproduced in periodicals ranging from The Masses (a socialist-influenced journal) to the mainstream Harper’s Weekly.

In 1913, Bellows was selected to exhibit in the famed Armory Show, which was America’s first large scale exposure to the modern art movements of Europe. The show included works by Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp, and Van Gogh, among many others, representing various objective as well as non-objective styles. American viewers were outraged by the radical nature of some of the work since it was a sharp departure from the conventional, academic style art they were used to. During the same year, Bellows received official acceptance by the American art establishment and was elected to full membership in the National Academy of Design. Bellows was enjoying a successful exhibition career, and growing status as a painter and lithographer, when his life was cut short. He died on January 8, 1925 due to complications following surgery for a ruptured appendix at the age of 43. (3)

Bellows was primarily a painter of urban subjects. His earliest successes came from his paintings such as River Rats (1906, Private Collection), and Forty-Two Kids (1907, Corcoran Gallery of Art). Perhaps his best-known early work is Cliff Dwellers, painted in 1913 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art). This work depicts Manhattan’s Lower East Side slum dwellers escaping the oppressive heat of summer interiors by seeking fresh air outside their tenements. Bellows also sketched this composition and it was published in The Masses, a socialist journal of the day. It was printed with the satirical caption “Why don’t they all go to the country for vacation?” words supposedly spoken by a famous New York socialite. Just as with his depictions of boxers, Bellows’s paintings of the slums and the people that lived in them reflected rebellion against restrictive middle class mores that informed works of the American art academies. Bellows and his like-minded contemporaries felt that the struggles of the urban poor made them better appreciate the simple pleasures of life. The requirements of middle and upper class custom made many members of those classes unhappy despite their greater wealth.

As subjects, Bellows frequently preferred the gritty determination of the lower classes, their urban environment and their activities. However, he also reveled in painting the fabric of the city itself—the construction sites of the rapidly developing transportation system for example. Public parks, filled with members of society of every class, were another source of imagery. While he did paint some portraits on commission, he most frequently chose to portray the members of his extended family and his friends. Bellows painted this range of subjects in a way that was stylistically similar. He used short, choppy brush strokes that helped convey the immediacy and vitality of large masses of people, the bustle of city streets, or the raw power of boxers. He most often vacationed on the northeastern coast where he painted the sea and activities of the seacoast. In most of his genre or landscape paintings, the features of the people depicted become almost unintelligible. Both Members of This Club (1909, National Gallery of Art, Washington) is one of Bellows’s most famous boxing subjects, and the two fighters appear to be one entity. Bellows’s brushstrokes expertly convey the brutality of the match and the grotesque expressions of the crowd intoxicated by the desperation of the combatants.

Bellows did not begin to make lithographs until early 1916; his first was printed just nine years before his death. In the early twentieth century, most people considered lithography to be out of fashion and a commercial medium; the etching technique enjoyed a resurgence in popularity among fine artists beginning in the nineteenth century. However, Bellows was too impatient to etch, and preferred the flexibility of lithography and its ability to capture and recreate the tonal values of his drawings. He was one of twenty-seven artists who organized the Painter-Gravers of America, a group dedicated to educating the public about the processes for making prints. (4)

Even though they were his most popular prints and paintings, the boxing scenes for which Bellows is justifiably famous only comprise a small percentage of Bellows’s oeuvre. His works were as diverse as his personality, and due to his untimely death at 43, we have only a glimpse at what he may potentially have achieved in his artistic maturity.

Kate Lamar, August, 2007
revised MLA, August, 2007

(1) Bellows left Ohio State before completing his junior year, although he was both a good student and a successful ballplayer. The art curriculum at Ohio State was geared toward instruction for professional draftsmen such as architects and engineers rather than offering courses in fine art. In order to pay his rent in New York, at one point he played catcher for a Brooklyn-based baseball team known as The Howards. Mary Sayre Haverstock, George Bellows: An Artist in Action (London and New York, 2007), pp. 21-22, 34.
(2) Apparently Taylor and Robert Henri were acquainted and Taylor may have recommended the young Bellows to Henri for instruction. Haverstock, p. 21, 26
(3) Bellows’s life and career are summarized in Charles H. Morgan’s George Bellows: Painter of America, New York: Reynal & Company, 1965, and other monographs.
(4) Haverstock, p. 114.

Image credit: George Wesley Bellows, Self-Portrait, 1921, lithograph on paper, Photograph courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, CC0

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