Comprehensive Exhibition of George Bellows’ Prolific Career at National Gallery of Art

George Bellows

George Bellows, Stag at Sharkey's, 1909. Oil on canvas. Framed: 110.17 x 140.5 x 8.5 cm (43 3/8 x 55 5/16 x 3 3/8 in.) unframed: 92 x 122.6 cm (36 1/4 x 48 1/4 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Hinman B. Hurlbut Collection.

When George Bellows died at the age of 42 in 1925, he was hailed as one of the greatest artists America had yet produced. The first comprehensive exhibition of his career in more than three decades premieres in Washington, DC, from June 10 through October 8, 2012. George Bellows includes some 130 paintings, drawings, and lithographs of tenement children, boxers, and the urban landscape of New York, as well as Maine seascapes, sports images, World War I subjects, family portraits, and Woodstock, NY, scenes.

“George Bellows is arguably the most important figure in the generation of artists who negotiated the transition from the Victorian to the modern era in American culture,” said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. “This exhibition provides the most complete account of his achievements to date and will introduce Bellows to new generations.”

The exhibition will travel to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (November 15, 2012–February 18, 2013), and close at the Royal Academy of Arts, London (March 16–June 9, 2013). The accompanying catalogue documents and defines Bellows’ unique place in the history of American art and in the annals of modernism.

Works in the Exhibition
Mentored by Robert Henri, leader of the Ashcan School in New York in the early part of the 20th century, George Bellows (1882–1925) painted the world around him. He was also an accomplished graphic artist whose illustrations and lithographs addressed a wide array of social, religious, and political subjects. The full range of his remarkable artistic achievement is presented thematically and chronologically throughout nine rooms in the West Building.

The exhibition begins with Bellows’ renowned paintings and drawings of tenement children and New York street scenes. These iconic images of the modern city were made during an extraordinary period of creativity for the artist that began shortly after he left his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, for New York in 1904. Encouraged by Henri, his teacher at the New York School of Art, Bellows sought out contemporary subjects that would challenge prevailing standards of taste, depicting the city’s impoverished immigrant population in River Rats (1906, private collection) and Forty-Two Kids (1907, Corcoran Gallery of Art).

In addition to street scenes, Bellows painted more formal studio portraits of New York’s working poor. These startling, frank subjects—such as Paddy Flannigan (1908, Erving and Joyce Wolf)—reflect the artist’s profound understanding of the realist tradition of portraiture practiced by such masters as Diego Velázquez, Frans Hals, Edouard Manet, and James McNeill Whistler.

Bellows’ early boxing paintings chronicle brutal fights; to circumvent a state ban on public boxing, they were organized by private clubs in New York at that time. In his three acclaimed boxing masterpieces—Club Night (1907, National Gallery of Art), Stag at Sharkey’s (1909, Cleveland Museum of Art), and Both Members of This Club (1909, National Gallery of Art)—Bellows’ energetic, slashing brushwork matched the intensity and action of the fighters. These works will be on view together for the first time since 1982.

The series of four paintings Bellows devoted to the Manhattan excavation site for the Pennsylvania Railroad Station—a massive construction project that entailed razing two city blocks—focuses mainly on the subterranean pit in which workmen toiled. Never before exhibited together, these works range from a scene of the early construction site covered in snow in Pennsylvania Station Excavation (1909, Brooklyn Museum) to a view of the monumental station designed by McKim, Mead, and White coming to life in Blue Morning (1909, National Gallery of Art).

Bellows was fascinated with the full spectrum of life of the working and leisure classes in New York. From dock workers to Easter fashions paraded in the park, he chronicled a variety of subjects and used an array of palettes and painting techniques, from the cool grays and thin strokes of Docks in Winter (1911, private collection) to the jewel-like, encrusted surfaces of Snow-Capped River (1911, Telfair Museum of Art).While Bellows portrayed the bustling downtown commercial district of Manhattan in his encyclopedic overview New York (1911, National Gallery of Art), he more often depicted the edges of the city near the shorelines of the Hudson and East Rivers in works such as The Lone Tenement (1909, National Gallery of Art) and Blue Snow, The Battery (1910, Columbus Museum of Art).

The artist visited Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine for the first time in 1911 and returned to Maine every summer from 1913 to 1916. In 1913 alone he created more than 100 outdoor studies. His seascapes account for half his entire output as a painter, with the majority done after the 1913 Armory Show. Shore House (1911, private collection) and The Big Dory (1913, New Britain Museum of American Art) are among Bellows’ most important seascapes and pay homage to his great American predecessor, Winslow Homer (1836–1910).

In 1912 Bellows started working more consistently as an illustrator for popular periodicals such as Collier’s and Harper’s Weekly, and in 1913 for the socialist magazine The Masses. These illustration assignments led him to record new aspects of American life ranging from sporting events to religious revival meetings, as seen in The Football Game (1912, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden) and Preaching (Billy Sunday) (1915, Boston Public Library). Along with Bellows’ more affordable and widely available lithographs (he installed a printing press in his studio in 1916), the published illustrations broadened the audience for his work.

Bellows supported the United States’ entry into World War I, resulting in an outpouring of paintings, lithographs, and drawings in 1918. For this extensive series, he relied on the published accounts of German atrocities in Belgium found in the 1915 Bryce Committee Report commissioned by the British government. The paintings evoke the tradition of grand public history paintings, as seen in Massacre at Dinant (1918, Greenville County Museum of Art), while the drawings and lithographs recall Francisco de Goya’s 18th-century print series The Disasters of War.

Bellows’ late works on paper survey modern American life, from the prisons of Georgia to the tennis courts of Newport, and highlight complex relationships between his various media. Taken from direct experience as well as fictional accounts, they range in tone from lightly satirical and humorous (Business-Men’s Bath, 1923, Boston Public Library) to profoundly disturbing and tragic (The Law Is Too Slow, 1922–1923, Boston Public Library).

In Emma at the Piano (1914, Chrysler Museum of Art), Bellows depicts his wife and lifelong artistic muse. His portraits of women constitute a larger body of work than his more famous boxing paintings. They cover all stages of life and include both the naive, youthful Madeline Davis (1914, Lowell and Sandra Mintz) and the more refined, matronly Mrs. T in Wine Silk (1919, Cedarhurst Center for the Arts).

The show will end with paintings in a variety of styles made in 1924, the year before the artist’s sudden death from appendicitis. Painted in Bellows’ studio in rural Woodstock, New York, these last works, including Dempsey and Firpo (1924, Whitney Museum of American Art), Mr. and Mrs. Philip Wase (1924, Smithsonian American Art Museum), and The White Horse (1924, Worcester Art Museum), will prompt visitors to contemplate the artist Bellows might have become had he lived into the 1960s, as did his friend and contemporary Edward Hopper (1882–1967).

Source: National Gallery of Art 

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