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George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925) grew up in Columbus, Ohio. According to Dr. Henry Adams, Professor of American Art at Case Western Reserve University, Bellows’s father was a building contractor, and his devout mother hoped he would one day become a Methodist Bishop. According to Professor Adams, Bellows was teased as a sissy by his classmates and so quickly learned to defend himself with his fists; he also compensated for his gangling awkwardness by becoming an outstanding athlete, particularly in baseball. His love of drawing was kindled early since he was forbidden to play outside on Sundays but allowed to draw while his mother read aloud from the Bible.
Bellows attended Ohio State University, where he was an outstanding baseball player. He also performed in college theatricals and produced “Gibson Girl” type drawings for the university magazine.
According to Professor Adams, in 1904 Bellows turned down a professional baseball contract, left Ohio State, and went to New York to study art under Robert Henri; it was not long after Bellows arrived in New York that Henri and his adherents staged their famous exhibition of “The Eight” (later dubbed the “Ashcan School”) at the Macbeth Gallery. Bellows was too new to New York to be included in the exhibition, but any follower of Bellows knows he is the quintessential disciple of Robert Henri. In fact Professor Adams expresses the hope that “The Eight” will someday be re-christened “The Nine,” in tribute to Bellows.
Isn’t Bellows just great? In my blog post of December 17, 2011 (see Art Out The Wazoo archives) I shared some of his famous boxing paintings — Dempsey and Firpo and Stag at Sharkey’s being the two best known. In this post I’m featuring his urban landscape painting — which is pure Ashcan School.
In all these landscapes Bellows is determined to confront the truth, wherever it might be and whatever it might look like. I guess I’m fascinated by Ashcan School artists like Bellows because they have faith in people and faith in the world. They love their subjects, lumps and all, somehow realizing that even the most conventionally ugly person or object presented to their senses is pulsing with beauty — so that there’s no need to gild the lily. Their motto might well be: “just tell the truth.”
Some of these paintings are nothing short of epic. The Lone Tenement, Excavation at Night, Pennsylvania Station Excavation, Forty-Two Kids, River Rats and Steaming Streets could be scenes out of Dante’s Inferno. Everything else on this page could stand for Purgatorio. All are amazing in their power. Bellows spares you nothing: desolation will be desolation. Beauty will be beauty, wherever it crops up. No exceptions.
Sadly, George Bellows died of appendicitis in 1925, at the age of just forty-three. Later that same year a great memorial exhibition of his work was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. At the opening, Bellows’s teacher, Robert Henri, served as personal escort to Bellows’s widow, Emma. When it was over, Professor Adams tells us, Henri turned to Emma in tears. “I always gave him my most severe criticism,” he commented, “because I thought he was my best pupil. Now I am sure of it.”
Despite his untimely death, George Bellows is one of the greatest painters in the history of American art. He achieved membership in the National Academy of Design at the age of just twenty-three, and, as Professor Adams notes, at the age of thirty-one became a full academician, the youngest painter ever elected to that body. By the age of thirty his work was displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Professor Adams: “Today, [Bellows] is still ranked as one of the giants of American art — a figure whose tough-minded realism rivals that of Eakins, whose technical virtuosity rivals that of Sargent.” Not bad.