George Bellows: Urban Landscapes

25 Jan

George Wesley Bellows, Blue Morning (1909)

George Wesley Bellows, Blue Snow, The Battery (1910)

Note: click on any image to enlarge

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.

George Wesley Bellows, The Lone Tenement (1909)

George Wesley Bellows, Cliff Dwellers (1913)

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.

George Wesley Bellows, Excavation at Night (1908)

George Wesley Bellows, Pennsylvania Station Excavation (1907)

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 TenementExcavation 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.

George Wesley Bellows, Forty-Two Kids (1907)

George Wesley Bellows, Central Park (1905)

George Wesley Bellows, New York (1911)

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.”

George Wesley Bellows, Beach at Coney Island (1908)

George Wesley Bellows, Steaming Streets (1908)

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.

George Wesley Bellows, River Rats (1906)

George Wesley Bellows, The Circus (1912)

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2 Responses to “George Bellows: Urban Landscapes”

  1. Norman Jensen November 5, 2012 at 12:57 am #

    Thanks for your bellows site. I’m hoping to see the traveling National gallery show next year in New York.
    the railroad bridge the hovers over the Lone tenement looks like the concret towers of the Hellgate bridge. Is it possible that Lone tenement shows the Hellgate bridge at an earlier time? I love the light in the pictures from that series. keep your courage up. I wish you well.

    I love the light in those pictures

    • bobbalouie November 6, 2012 at 11:58 am #

      Thanks for commenting! Sorry it took me so long to approve your comment, I was out of town on a business trip. I haven’t checked, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they’re the same bridge. One of the interesting things about Ashcan School art (I really consider Bellows the ninth Ashcan School painter) is that you can trace it back to so many actual landmarks around New York and elsewhere. It’s especially true for Sloan, Bellows and Shinn, in my experience. Thanks for your well wishes and I wish you the same!

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