Saturday Art: George Bellows
(Picture courtesy of c_Nilson at flickr.com.)
One of the best regarded American realist painters of the past century, George Bellows was a promising athlete from Columbus, Ohio, who chose to follow a life as an artist and achieved renown for his honest portrayal of urban life.
Bellows first achieved notice in 1908, when he and other pupils of Henri organized an exhibition of mostly urban studies. While many critics considered these to be crudely painted, others found them welcomely audacious and a step beyond the work of his teacher. Bellows taught at the Art Students League of New Yorkin 1909, although he was more interested in pursuing a career as a painter. His fame grew as he contributed to other nationally recognized juried shows.
Bellows’ urban New York scenes depicted the crudity and chaos of working-class people and neighborhoods, and also satirized the upper classes. From 1907 through 1915, he executed a series of paintings depicting New York City under snowfall. These paintings were the main testing ground in which Bellows developed his strong sense of light and visual texture. These exhibited a stark contrast between the blue and white expanses of snow and the rough and grimy surfaces of city structures, and created an aesthetically ironic image of the equally rough and grimy men struggling to clear away the nuisance of the pure snow. However, Bellows’ series of paintings portraying amateur boxing matches were arguably his signature contribution to art history. These paintings are characterized by dark atmospheres, through which the bright, roughly lain brushstrokes of the human figures vividly strike with a strong sense of motion and direction.
the always socially conscious Bellows also associated with a group of radical artists and activists called “the Lyrical Left“, who tended towards anarchism in their extreme advocacy of individual rights. He taught at the first Modern School in New York City (as did his mentor, Henri), and served on the editorial board of the socialist journal, The Masses, to which he contributed many drawings and prints beginning in 1911. However, he was often at odds with the other contributors because of his belief that artistic freedom should trump any ideological editorial policy. Bellows also notably dissented from this circle in his very public support of U.S. intervention in World War I. In 1918, he created a series of lithographs and paintings that graphically depicted atrocities the Allies said had been committed by Germany during its invasion of Belgium. Notable among these was The Germans Arrive, which gruesomely illustrated a German soldier restraining a Belgian teen whose hands had just been severed. However, his work was also highly critical of the domestic censorship and persecution of antiwar dissenters conducted by the U.S. government under the Espionage Act.
He was also criticized for some of the liberties he took in capturing scenes of war. The artist Joseph Pennell argued that because Bellows had not witnessed the events he painted firsthand, he had no right to paint them. Bellows responded that he had not been aware that Leonardo da Vinci“had a ticket to paint the Last Supper“.
He left a legacy of frank portrayals that never glamorized but always honored the plain people he knew best.
- Parrot by George Bellows