Published: April 22, 2008
George Bellows (1882‱925), talented athlete, witty satirist, enthusiastic friend, outspoken citizen and gifted artist, traveled from Columbus, Ohio, to wow the New York City art world early in the Twentieth Century. After three years at Ohio State University, where he was all-Big Ten in basketball and baseball, he had to choose between accepting an offer to play major league baseball with the Cincinnati Reds or depart for New York to study to become an artist. In 1904, he chose the latter.
Following classes with charismatic teacher/painter Robert Henri, Bellows heeded his mentor’s admonition to concentrate on scenes of the real life of the city around them. Nowadays, he is best remembered for these renderings of the gritty ambience of early Twentieth Century New York.
In these early years, also in line with Henri’s teachings, Bellows captured forms not with careful academic modeling, but with quick, impulsive strokes, helping to ensure that final images †painted in a loose, vigorous Impressionistic style †retained the dash and excitement of initial impressions.
Following Henri’s lead, Bellows started out depicting Manhattan scenes ranging from slums to excavation projects to the finest images of boxing matches of all time. Critic Henry McBride called him “the Sargent of the East Side.” “Every artist is looking for news,” Bellows observed. “He is a great reporter of life: keeping his eyes open for some hitherto untold piece of reality to put on his canvas.”
The popularity and success of his work was enhanced by an expansive, engaging, masculine personality and infectious energy that matched the vitality of his art. Bellows’s career was meteoric: college dropout and beginning art student at 22, member of the National Academy of Design at 27, America’s most accomplished lithographer at 35 and dead of appendicitis at 42. As art historian Charles H. Morgan wrote, “The magnetism of&⁛Belllows’s] early product has no parallel in American painting.” He was widely recognized as a leading member of the Ashcan School of painters.
In his later years, Bellows’s work became more calculated and academic, under the influence of a compositional system called dynamic symmetry. But to the end he produced work that was compellingly interesting and beautifully executed.
Bellows remains one of the towering figures of turn-of-the-century American art, admired for his bravura style and the manner in which he captured the spirit and character of American city living, as well as leisure-time activities of suburbanites.
Bellows’s more than 700 paintings, which so brilliantly captured the feel of early modern American life, are so acclaimed that they have tended to obscure appreciation for his graphic works, of which there are nearly 200 editions of lithographs and an equal number of drawings. Yet these lesser-known works on paper convey the same vivacity as his canvases, utilizing quick, vibrant lines that tend to leap off the page and bring scenes to life.
The largest collection of Bellows’s graphic art at any institution was given to the Boston Public Library by banker Albert Henry Wiggin in 1941. From that trove, nearly 60 works on paper †drawings and lithographs †are included in the exhibition “The Powerful Hand of George Bellows: Drawings from the Boston Public Library,” on view at the Portland Museum of Art through June 1.
Organized by the Trust for Museum Exhibitions in Washington, D.C., in collaboration with the Boston Public Library, the exhibition was curated by prints and drawings authority Robert Conway, who also wrote the useful catalog. The full range of Bellows’s graphic art is represented in the show, including quick sketches in the field to be used later in the studio; finished compositions intended for publication in periodicals; commissioned illustrations for short stories and novels; preparatory drawings for lithographic editions and intimate portraits of family and friends.
The exhibition reflects how Bellows often worked from memory, but was also steeped in the importance of accurate, on-the-spot renderings. Created with seemingly effortless talent, the artist’s graphic work conveys his perception, compassion, sense of humor, restless intellect, moral convictions and occasional outrage.
At the urging of John Sloan, a fellow Ashcan artist, Bellows tried his hand at etching and, in 1916, lithography, becoming a master at achieving rich textures and fluid line work in animated images. With passion and enthusiasm, he pursued lithography as a serious art form; his editions sold well in his lifetime and continue to do so today. He was a prolific illustrator for top periodicals of the day, including Harper’s Weekly, The Masses and Vanity Fair .
“Everything around Bellows was of interest to him,” Morgan once wrote. “The only problem was which one to choose out of a plethora of experiences.” A case in point is the earliest drawing in the show, “Dogs, Early Morning (Hungry Dogs),” 1907, created when Bellows was 25, which depicts a bunch of emaciated alley dogs scrounging around an ashcan, a precursor to Bellows’s identification with what became known as the Ashcan School.
In 1916, he exhibited his first lithographs at New York’s foremost print gallery, Frederick Keppel & Co., led by “Splinter Beach,” showing a swarm of boisterous young toughs in various states of undress preparing to swim in the East River off a splintery wooden dock under the Brooklyn Bridge. A 1912 drawing of the same scene is in the exhibition.
In another swatch of gritty city life, “Pinched (The Street),” 1914, a policeman has collared a youngster to break up a fight on a congested sidewalk in a tenement neighborhood. Bellows returned to the theme of Lower East Side street life in a 1924 drawing for Good Housekeeping magazine, titled “Energizing the Broken (Salvation Army).” Created from a photograph and guided by principles of dynamic symmetry, the image is rather static, lacking the animation and energy of his earlier work.
On the brighter side, “Parade Forms on the Right (Spring, Central Park),” a 1921 crayon on paper drawing, depicts two well-dressed young women strolling through the park, with admiring men discussing them in the background.
Bellows achieved early recognition with vivid images †both on canvas and in print †of prizefighters in bouts that were at first illegal, notably “Stag at Sharkey’s,” 1907. The sport appealed to all classes of New Yorkers, who gathered at seamy boxing clubs and later, when the sport became legal, at major stadiums to witness violence in the ring. Bellows’s participation in and portrayal of this action-packed world challenged the prevailing stereotype of the artist as an effete academic, increasing his popularity.
The boxing images are fascinating sociological studies. “Preliminaries (Preliminaries to the Big Bout),” 1916, captures the scene at Madison Square Garden in 1916 at the first prize fights that ladies were allowed to attend; his focus is on the women in long gowns and their escorts, decked out in tuxedos and top hats in the foreground, with the boxing match in the background almost an afterthought.
In “Introducing Georges Carpentier,” 1921, he conveys the energy and movement of the large, raucous crowd as the ring announcer introduces the challenger from France who was about to be demolished in the ring by the American heavyweight champion, Jack Dempsey. A 1921 lithograph, “The White Hope,” shows the first black world heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, standing powerfully over his fallen opponent, former titleholder Jim Jeffries, as the referee tolls the count in a famous bout in Reno, Nev., in 1910. These are wonderful evocations of a violent, but highly popular side of American sporting life.
Drawn from observations during Bellows’s early days staying at the West Side YMCA in New York, “Business Men’s Class,” 1913, mildly ridiculed the disparate participants in a physical fitness group. This sizable monotype, destined for publication in The Masses , a socialist-leaning periodical, was one of a number of what Bellows called “humoresques,” inspired by late Nineteenth Century images of French caricaturist Honore Daumier, whose work he admired.
Another lithograph published in The Masses , “Night at Petitpas (Artist’s Night at Petitpas),” 1914, reflects Bellows’s prominent place in the New York art world. Set in a restaurant on West 29th Street frequented by artists, it shows Henri conversing with Irish artist and raconteur John Butler Yeats (father of poet William and painter John Butler Yeats), with Bellows hovering between them. Bellows’s wife, Emma, and Henri’s wife, Marjorie, also appear in this nostalgic vignette.
Bellows summed up his boyhood in Columbus with the phrase, “I arose surrounded by Methodists and Republicans.” He later discarded the Methodism of his youth and, as Morgan put it, “In his lithographs he skewered ecclesiastical pomp and pretense.” In a pen and ink sketch and later a lithograph, titled “Prayer Meeting,” he gently poked fun at the histrionics of a preacher and his contented flock he had observed in a small church on Monhegan Island, Maine, in the summer of 1913. Bellows came to loathe famed evangelist (and former major league baseball player) Billy Sunday, whom he covered on assignment for publications. In “Preaching (Billy Sunday),” a 1915 drawing, he captured the cheap hysterics of the athletic preacher leaping forward to harangue a crowd about the evils of an intemperate life.
During several summers on Monhegan, Bellows concentrated on painting land- and seascapes. In a deft crayon drawing, “Matinicus,” 1916, he depicted the wharf, shacks and lobster pots of the hardy fishermen of an even smaller, nearby island.
Other summer sojourns around Newport, R.I., led to a beach series, epitomized by a 1921 lithograph, “Bathing Beach.” Based on visits to his aging mother in Columbus, he drew nostalgic views of pleasant life on porches and on the street where he grew up.
Bellows kept his distance from most subjects, treating them with humor or satire. As distinguished art historian John Wilmerding once observed, Bellows had “the flexibility to be social observer, journalist and occasional critic.” A notable exception was his reaction to atrocities inflicted on civilians by German invaders in Belgium in 1914 at the outset of World War I.
As the horrors of the early years of the war became apparent in this country, Bellows, at first a dedicated pacifist, turned from cityscapes and sporting subjects to more polemical work, in a series of powerful indictments of war that Morgan predicted more than 40 years ago “will one day rank with those of Goya.” In all, the “War Series” consisted of 20 lithographs, 30 related drawings and five paintings. While some have criticized the aesthetic quality of Bellows’s war works, there is no denying the compelling nature of the images. Reflecting the artist’s anger and outrage, he documented brutality inflicted by soldiers on innocent civilians in “The Last Victim,” “The Return of the Useless” and “The Barricade,” all crayon drawings of 1918.
Another drawing, “Base Hospital,” 1918, is a fairly faithful copy of a photograph taken in a French church near the battle front, to which Bellows added dramatic sunlight streaming behind the medical team.
Recollections of accounts in his hometown newspaper of lynchings of African Americans in the South years before formed the basis for Bellows’s powerful drawing “The Law is Too Slow,” created for Century magazine in 1922. This indelible image of human brutality was used by antilynching groups for years.
Bellows based some drawings on photographs, such as a view of Irish politician Eamon De Valera making a campaign speech on behalf of his party, Sinn Fein, in 1923, and a depiction of a worried group of men, women and a child, gathered at the entrance to a Pennsylvania mine after a disaster around 1923. These images, derived from outside sources, tend to be “wooden, at least to the degree that someone as talented as Bellows could make them,” writes curator Conway in the catalog.
Bellows’s affection for those close to him permeates a number of sensitive images of his wife and daughter, of friends and of gatherings with fellow painters and their wives. “Girl Sewing,” circa 1923, offers a profile of his wife engrossed in sewing, seemingly unaware of her husband’s presence.
This nicely selected and organized show documents the accuracy of Morgan’s statement that “No other artist has dealt so broadly and successfully with the amazing diversity that embodies America.” It serves as a reminder that in addition to being a bravura Ashcan School painter, Bellows was a gifted draftsman and lithographer.
In showcasing the superb collection of the Boston Public Library, the exhibition demonstrates how Bellows employed his consummate graphic virtuosity for expressive purposes. “The Powerful Hand of George Bellows” solidifies the artist’s place among the finest of American graphic artists.
After closing in Portland, the exhibition travels to San Antonio Museum of Art (June 21⁁ugust 31), before returning to the Boston Public Library (September 22⁄ecember 1).
The 159-page catalog contains reproductions and discussions of works in the exhibition, along with frank commentary on Bellows’s graphic techniques by curator Conway. Published by the Trust for Museum Exhibitions in cooperation with the Boston Public Library, it sells for $35, softcover.
The Portland Museum of Art is at Seven Congress Square. For information, 207-775-6148 or www.portlandmuseum.org .
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