George Bellows at the National Gallery of Art

George Bellows
June 10–October 8, 2012

National Gallery of Art

by Sarah Kate Jorgensen

George Bellows, the subject of an exhaustive retrospective and handsome catalogue by the National Gallery, gained fame for his seminal paintings of boxing matches in early twentieth century New York City.  The exhibition opens up a new conversation about Bellows, showing him to be an artist who voraciously experimented with subject matter, techniques, palettes, and media throughout his life.

George Bellows came to New York from Ohio in 1904 to study at the New York School of Art under Robert Henri.  Henri was a mentor to the first generation of American modernists, and several of his students, including Bellows, became associated with “the Eight” or the “Ashcan” school. Their art was made during an era of  technological innovation and rapid social change. Edward Muybridge’s photographic studies of motion gave way to moving pictures. Henry Ford transformed the “horseless carriage” into an automobile industry. Albert Einstein radically changed scientific thinking of space and time. During the same era, Upton Sinclair authored The Jungle which documented the growth of industry and political corruption that preyed upon and often destroyed the lives of the poor.

River Rats (1906)

Living in urban centers, Ashcan artists witnessed stresses in the country’s physical and social fabric. The population of the United States surged with the arrival of 15 million immigrants between 1890 and 1915. Poverty increased, while millionaires such as the Morgans and Rockefellers—who benefited from cheap, immigrant labor and the absence of anti-trust and federal labor laws –amassed even greater wealth.  Bellows’ early work reflects the tumultuous nature of turn of the century America, and as with other Ashcan artists, his depictions of the poor working class unveil truths about urban life and the human condition in the era of colonization, urbanization and industrialization.

Little Girl in White, Queenie Burnett (1907)

Bellows became one of the boldest artists of his generation. He occupies a dynamic place in American art history, transitioning from the Victorian to the modern. In comparison to contemporaries such as Duchamp and Picasso, his formal style was not exceedingly radical. Nonetheless, his expressive paint handling and candid subject matter often shocked contemporary audiences.

Bellows’ predecessors were the artists of the Gilded Age, William Merritt Chase and other American Impressionists. These artists conveyed the life of the leisure class, while Bellows range of subjects was wide reaching, psychological and often offered social commentary. In addition to painting the upper class enjoying Central Park, he mined the lives of tenement children, the crowded street scenes of New York, urban construction sites, boxing, war, old age, the sea and relationships. In his late twenties, he admitted that others paved the way but that he “came at the psychological moment,”perhaps meaning that part of his contribution to art was the mining of social and psychological topics of the early part of the twentieth century and the modern era in America. His depictions of life “unedited” ranged from stable to metamorphic, ridiculous to sublime, ugly to beautiful.

Bellows’ art cannot be reduced; he never achieved one artistic identity, unlike his friend Edward Hopper who went on to live forty years longer than Bellows. The National Gallery’s exhibit proposes that to limit consideration of Bellows to subject matter or style is to risk a fundamental misreading of his art’s nature and significance. To understand Bellows you have to understand that he is a modern painter. What makes him modern is that he is constantly experimenting with styles, themes, media and subject matter.  The result is a dynamic, inchoate rendering of life.

The exhibition, comprised of 150 paintings, prints and drawings, is organized thematically and chronologically.  You see his style change depending on his subject matter.  In River Rats, (1906), large abstracted spaces give way to detailed passages.  Kids horse around on the edge of a dock in the Hudson River.  In swaths of Naples yellow, burned umber, sepia and occasional white highlights he depicts a scene in contradistinction to Thomas Eakins’s Arcadian vision in The Swimming Hole (1884-85).  In Bellows’ painting the water is mucky, tenements crowd the horizon, and the large cliff, perhaps in Washington Heights, dwarfs the subjects.  His brush strokes are modern in that the application of paint takes a life of its own. It’s tied to representation, but pushes the medium toward abstraction. This experimentation with formal technique in and of itself is a tenet of modernism.

In contrast, his series of empathetic, sympathetic portraits of Irish immigrant children who worked in the Lower East Side recall paintings by his heroes Goya, Manet, Velázquez and Whistler.  Little Girl in White (Queenie Burnett) (1907) depicts Queenie Burnett, a young laundress who worked in Bellows’s building. Her large round black eyes gaze shyly out. Bellows’s Spanish pallet, the gradations of earth green and sepia, give the painting gravitas and warmth.

Both Members of this Club (1909)

In 1909 Bellows took on the provocative subject of the quasi-legal basement boxing matches of New York City.  In Both Members of This Club (1909), Bellows has painted two boxers – one charging black boxer gleaming with sweat and one white boxer shrinking back, his face muddled with blood. The depiction of the black boxer signified the rise of the black boxer in the sport.  The menacing male spectators surround the ring, calling for blood. While Bellows poses the question why are people fighting, he posits that what’s going on around the fight is perhaps more alarming. The underlying themes of aggression and conflict make Bellows’ boxing paintings both topical and timeless.

From his boxing scenes he turned to investigations of large public work projects. This exhibition is the first time his excavation paintings have been shown together so that the scenes can be viewed as a full story depicting the excavation of  the Pennsylvania Station.  Pennsylvania Station (1907) conveys the power of modern technology and the sheer scale of urban projects. The excavation for Pennsylvania Station was the largest public works project in New York since the building of the Brooklyn Bridge.  Instead of waiting and painting the Beaux Arts building, Bellows was fascinated with the huge scale of the project and the harsh working conditions. The empty space created for the station’s foundation dominates the canvas. Small figures standing in the foreground accentuate the massive gaping hole. His dark pallet emphasizes both gloom and power. With turbid brush strokes, he depicts snow still on the floor of the crater, the glare of a fire, and billows of steam and smoke.

The Lone Tenement (1909)

Those displaced by the construction of the Queensboro bridge are the subject of his “anti monumental” painting The Lone Tenement (1909).  Bellows shows not the bridge itself but the space that is cleared for the bridge and the impact on the people nearby it by removing their neighborhood and displacing them from their homes.  Many tenement buildings were demolished as a part of this large-scale project, and a solitary tenement building is all that remains–standing tall in the shadow of the underpass. Bellows has handled the paint in an original way.  At times the paint is thinly applied and at other times, with the use of a pallet knife, it is almost confectionary.

A Morning Snow (1910)

He also painted a series of landscapes and tonalist works.  His winter’s scene along the Hudson looking towards the Palisades called A Morning Snow (1910) is unusual in its color scheme and composition.  Wide bands of ice sheets on the river meet snow banks on the shore, creating a sort of high, white horizon.   The viewer looks down at figures in the snow and steam and sailing ships on the river from a high vantage point, almost like a Chinese scroll. Docks in Winter (1911) is another tonalist work. In the painting a worker clears a path on a dock while work horses huddle together in the driving snow. The painting itself is a symphony in various hues of gray and dirty white.

Although his reputation was forged on his scenes of the fierceness and brutality of city life, some of his best works were seascapes that he painted in Maine. His seascapes such as Island in the Sea (1911) show a respite from Manhattan in the mighty rocks, silver water and epic nature of the Maine coastline.

Emma at the Piano (1914)

Bellows was an excellent portrait artist, painting portraits concurrently with his other works throughout his life.  His portraits of women are a striking contrast to his masculine images of boxing matches. His wife and muse, Emma, is depicted in an arresting image entitled  Emma at the Piano (1914).  The one time piano accompanist for silent films glances out at the viewer in the midst of playing the piano, her blue eyes accented by a dress and vase of pure ultramarine.

The exhibit  also displays a large amount of his drawings and prints, including his work for the socialist periodical The Masses.   Topics of his works on paper ranged from boxing matches, to war, to mob justice, to revival meetings. In these images, such as Splinter Beach, his subjects seem to burst from the page: the preacher, Billy Sunday, lunges for the crowd; swimmers dive from decrepit docks.

After 1914, and presumably after seeing the seminal Armory show of 1913 which introduced European modernism to American audiences Bellows became even more interested in artistic theory.  (Interestingly, he later became disturbed by the inclusion of assemblage art in another show. It tested the limits of his sense of what art could be.)   He had previously experimented with the Maratta color system, but continued his pursuits of such things as structure theories of Jay Hambridge and compositional formulas such as the golden mean.  His paintings of his family and of friends and neighbors in Woodstock became brightly jewel toned, reflecting folk art and Italian masters.

Fisherman’s Family (1923)

In the exhibition’s final room hangs Fisherman’s Family (1923), an image of a man carrying his daughter with his wife by his side while fishermen pull in the day’s catch.  The painting has a distinct introspective feel.  The colors have the purity of a stained glass window.  The subjects’ elongated forms are focused on something outside the picture frame. Mountains loom in the background. A lone white house perched on a cliff is overshadowed by an oncoming storm. There is an implied but vague narrative.

The fact that Fisherman’s Family is so different from the majority of his early works tells you that Bellows was always after something. His later works may not be as impactful as his earlier works, and they are often not as lauded by critics. However these works are compelling because they show an artist in transition. It evidences an artist constantly experimenting with techniques and working out problems and ideas.

The Gallery’s selection and exhibition of pieces is a celebration of Bellows as an artist constantly exploring and expanding his art. It suggests that  Bellows is not asking you to like everything he does; rather, he wants you to look at it honestly. He paints in the style that fits him and the subject matter. He wants his paintings to be a conversation.  He wants you to think about what you see without trying to narrow it down to something easy to digest.

As art historian Michael Quick has observed, “if you dismiss any period of Bellows’s work as not deeply thought out and innovative, you do so at your own peril.”