George Bellows


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George Bellows, Boxing, 1901, Oil on canvas.

George Wesley Bellows (1882 -1925 was born in Columbus, Ohio, where he attended Ohio State University before going to New York City in 1904 to study art.  For two years Bellows worked under Henri at Chase's New York School of Art.  Here, Bellows mastered the broad, slashing brushstroke and fluid flow of paint upon canvas, as heir to the Hals-Munich tradition via his American teacher and the direct influence of Chase.  His subject matter followed the urban realist party line--children swimming along the docks, gang fights, and the like--but he also painted high society, elegantly dressed, playing tennis or watching a polo match.  There was a puzzling duality about Bellows's career, for he eventually became a leader of the realist group, but he was also welcomed into the orbit of the National Academy.

Success came early to Bellows, with pictures such as River Rats (1906, private collection) and Forty-two Kids (1907, Corcoran Gallery).  The zestful nature of his art was demonstrated in his pictures of prizefighters, for example, Stag at Sharkey's (1907, Cleveland Museum of Art) and Both Members of This Club.

Prizefighters were at the time illegal in New York City, but nevertheless were held at private clubs like Sharkey's, which Bellows frequented regularly.  The title Both Members of This Club was derived from the practice of making the two pugilists temporary members of the club, which gave the fight legal status.  As in Stag at Sharkey's, there are no women present, for such places were open only to men.

Bellows, who was quite athletic himself, moved in close to the ring in order to capture the scene--to observe and transfer the smell and sweat of the combatants onto his canvas.  The bloodiness of the white man's face contributes to the unsavoriness of the scene--from the viewpoint of Academicians--and the two nearly nude figures are anything but Apollo-like.  The viewer is drawn in to mingle with the shouting, boisterous, intoxicated crowd.  Bellow's brushwork is intentionally brusque and rough, and is used to convey the dynamic energy the artist sensed in his unrefined subject.

Although he came  from a conservative Midwestern background, Bellow's sympathies for the poor of the city's slums led him increasingly toward a socialist outlook.  In May 1913 he contributed a drawing to The Masses, one of the leading socialist periodicals of the day.  That same year Bellows painted Cliff Dwellers, which depicts the huddled masses of the Lower East Side.  The scene is filled with people who cannot escape the summer heat of the city.  A satirical title was given to the preparatory drawing, which was published in The Masses.  The words supposedly were spoken by a wealthy Fifth Avenue socialite--"Why Don't They All Go to the Country for Vacation?"

Pictures such as this attacked the belief that the poor were happy with their lot in life.  Bellows saw a rich, vital pageantry in such scenes, with noisy, shouting children, a cacophony of languages and noises, sweltering souls on the fire-escapes, and sidewalk vegetable stalls.  Escape to the country or to a better life is walled off by the ghetto itself.

The duality of Bellow's career persisted: He was not only one of the participants in the `1913 Armory Show, but also the same year was elected by the National Academy to full membership.  Little more than a decade remained of Bellows's life.  Two of his finest portraits from his later years are his Portrait of My Mother(1921, Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts), and the one of his daughter, Lady Jean(1924, Yale University Art Gallery).

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Revised: 29 Nov 2000 14:30:28 -0500 .