As I began to walk through the George Bellows exhibition, I felt this is the greatest American painter ever! That’s how powerful the early paintings are. In front of those large and powerful canvases such as Stag at Sharkey’s, it took awhile to even start thinking of his powerful competition among American painters … including Thomas Eakins who had a great influence on him.
In Forty-Two Kids, he paints slum kids swimming and sunning in and around the East River, depicted with all their skinny, adolescent awkwardness, but seen with a kind of Rembrandesque sense of beauty and dignity in the un-ideal.
Bellows came to NYC from Columbus, Ohio, and fast became associated the painter and teacher Robert Henri and, first The Eight and then the Ashcan School of the early 20th Century — young American realists who believed in painting contemporary American life, especially urban life, ash cans and all. He was and is the best. Using a free brushstroke, derived from the impressionists, he depicts city scenes, parks, slums, waterways, and the inhabitants.
His heavy impasto, often to the point of painting in relief, and the passion he brings to each stroke of the brush reminds one of van Gogh, though he doesn’t share van Gogh’s focus on complementary colors, and uses color naturalistically and, especially in his portraits, often with a Rembrandt-like depth of tone and focused lighting.
The exhibition includes several portraits of “unimportant people” like Paddy Flanigan, with the concentration, enlaring composition and focused lighting that had once been applied only to portraits of the wealthy and high born. How wonderful! … though I doubt it paved a smoother path for these poor kids. One of my favorite paintings in the exhibition is the portrait of the child who brought Bellows his laundry every week, Little Girl in White (Queenie Burnette) of 1907, her own crisply laundered white dress fanned in fresh folds like a spray of lilies.
Generally he’s a great painter of the color “white” in which he finds extraordinary richness and variety. I love his scenes of snow in and around the city. One of the engaging and illuminating features of this exhibition is the placing next to Bellows’ paintings and photographs of similar subject matter: his paintings of the vast excavations – with snow — for Pennsylvania Station with photographs of the excavations, a photo of a sea painting by Winslow Homer’s next to Bellows painting of a similarly viewed crashing wave.
In time, his painting became less forceful, though his subject matter expanded to include brutal victimizations of war and racism. In The Massacre of Dinant, he painted an atrocity committed by the Germans in their invasion of Belgium during World War I.
The painting shows a great deal of thought, not only about the massacre but about other artists. Life in this painting is vertical, death is horizontal. The the frieze-like arrangement of the standing figures, with their heads on one level, and the horizontal proportions of the canvas, hark back to Courbet’s Burial at Ornans , while the dramatically foreshortened renderings of the dead figures reach to the Renaissance and Mantegna’s Dead Christ, and later, Manet’s painting of the Pieta: Thus Bellows conveys that the deaths of these “ordinary” men carry the spiritual weight of the death of Christ.
Elsewhere in this exhibition, we see Bellows cloak other victims of brutality in spiritualized martyrdom: in The Law Is Too Slow (1923), light and posture link the death of a lynched Black to that of Christ on the Cross. One thinks of — and feels — Goya’s title — One Cannot Look — for an etching in his series The Disasters of War, depicting unspeakable cruelty. Bellows’ paintings and lithographs of the atrocities of war do look back to the Disasters of War, though they lack the horrific sense of inevitability in Goya’s works.
In Bellows’ later works, faces — generally not his strong point in paintings with many figures bland and masklike, even cartoon-like, as in Tennis at Newport. Figures lose their elastic dynamism. One of the strongest of the late paintings depicts the Dempsey – Firpo boxing match. Though it shows Dempsey in full fall (based on a photo of the event), compared with the shocking immediacy ofShag at Starkey’s (at the top of this page), Dempsey and Firpo looks staged. The virtuoso drawing and slick finish of Dempsey and Firpo come at the cost of loss of the passion in the brushstroke that appears to be essential for Bellows’ full artistic expression.
The artist becomes tamed in his later works. He seems to have become too focused on trying out for himself what other artists did. Of course he always learned from others, as all artists do, but there’s a needed balance. His greatest works draw direct inspiration from the world he saw around him: he soaked it up, made it his own and painted it. In the later works he shifted his balance too heavily toward — so to say — letting other artists, past and current, into his studio and look over his shoulder.
He died at the age of 42 from complications of a ruptured appendix, having led a full though tragically short life and having painted some of the greatest works produced by an American artist. This beautifully organized and fully representative exhibition gives you the chance to see, enjoy and marvel at them.
Curators are Charles Brock and Franklin Kelly of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and H. Barbara Weinberg and Lisa M. Messinger of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A catalog, audio tour and educational programs are available.