George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925)
George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925)

Splinter Beach

George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925)
Splinter Beach
signed 'Geo Bellows-' (upper left)--inscribed with title (in the margin)
crayon, ink and crayon wash over transfer lithograph
17¼ x 22¾ in. (43.2 x 57.8 cm.), image; 21½ x 28 in. (54.6 x 71.1 cm.), sheet
Executed in 1913.
The artist.
Emma S. Bellows, wife of the above, gift from the above.
Robert Shand, 1951.
George K. Allison, 1977.
Dr. and Mrs. Harold Rifkin, New York, 1979.
Adelson Galleries, Inc., New York, 1999.
Acquired by the present owner from the above, 2005.
The Artist's Record Book A, p. 132.
The Masses, July 1913, no. 4, pp. 10-11, illustrated.
C.H. Morgan, George Bellows: Painter of America, New York, 1965, p. 152.
W.L. O'Neill, Echoes of Revolt: The Masses, 1911-1917, Chicago, Illinois, 1966, p. 161, illustrated.
D. Braider, George Bellows and the Ashcan School of Painting, New York, 1971, p. 76.
R. Zurier, Art for The Masses: A Radical Magazine and Its Graphics, 1911-1917, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1988, pp. 147, 154, 168-69, 201, n. 27, The Masses illustration illustrated.
M. Doezema, George Bellows and Urban America, New Haven, Connecticut, 1992, pp. 188, 190, illustrated.
M. Quick, et al., The Paintings of George Bellows, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1992, p. 46, fig. 42, illustrated.
C. Brock, et al., George Bellows, exhibition catalogue, New York, 2012, p. 214.
New York, McDowell Club, 1913.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Watercolor Society, 1913.
East Hampton, New York, Guild Hall Museum, American Masters: An Exhibition Inaugurating the Renovation of Guild Hall Museum, May 25-June 28, 1989.

Lot Essay

Splinter Beach is a particularly fine example of George Bellows' work, not only for its superb quality and daring use of mixed media, but also for its subject matter. A leader of the Ashcan movement, Bellows spent much of his career frequenting areas where people congregated, from rowdy tenements and boxing halls to polo fields and well-manicured parks. As in the present work, he always approached his subject in earnest, masterfully capturing the spirit and energy of the scene as well as its unique character. Splinter Beach is one of an important series of illustrations that Bellows produced for the socialist magazine The Masses in 1913. These drawings are all complex, multi-figural compositions with an underlying social commentary that "represent the culmination of the first mature phase of Bellows's oeuvre." (M. Doezema, George Bellows and Urban America, New Haven, Connecticut, 1992, pp. 186-87)

Bellows joined the group of artists working on The Masses in April 1913 in large part due to the urging of fellow artist John Sloan, who was the informal art editor at the time. "Sloan was largely responsible for making The Masses a vehicle for some of the finest graphics of the period. A sensitive treatment of artwork in layout as well as production drew visual artists with differing attitudes toward socialism...Without question, a seductively ebullient atmosphere surrounded the Masses crowd--a gathering of energetic men and women who were heady with new ideas and eager optimism." (George Bellows and Urban America, pp. 184-85) Bellows was drawn to the freedom and energy of those involved with the magazine, writing that The Masses, "offers the opportunity which artists and writers of young enthusiastic and revolutionary spirit have always wished for in this country." (George Bellows and Urban America, p. 185)

Bellows first work for the magazine was "a series of ambitious drawings, remarkable for their technical experimentation and expressive richness." (George Bellows and Urban America, pp. 186-87) In addition to Splinter Beach, which was illustrated in the July 1913 issue, these include: The Business Men's Class (Boston Public Library, Boston, Massachusetts), illustrated in the April 1913 issue; Philosopher-on-the-Rock (Yvette Eastman, Gay Head, Massachusetts), illustrated in the June 1913 issue; and Why Don't They Go to the Country for a Vacation? (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California), illustrated in the August 1913 issue. Always ahead of his time in his experimentation with various media, these works are not merely drawings, but various media over transfer lithographs. Here Bellows splendidly combines his superb draftsmanship with his robust, spontaneous technique. Rebecca Zurier writes, "Although Bellows is regarded as making his first lithographs in 1916, a group of drawings published in The Masses in 1913 appear to be based on previously unrecorded proofs of transfer lithographs that were cut, pasted, and drawn over in ink. No other impressions of these images are known." (Art for The Masses: A Radical Magazine and Its Graphics, 1911-1917, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1988, p. 200, n. 16) This early foray into experimental lithography demonstrates the influence of Daumier, whose cartoons Bellows studied, inspiring him to draw in crayon and "to experiment with lithography at a time when etching was still the preferred medium of 'artistic' printmakers," (Art for The Masses: A Radical Magazine and Its Graphics, 1911-1917, p. 130) and places Bellows among an esteemed group of artists who worked in various media over prints including Edgar Degas, Winslow Homer and Jasper Johns.

In Splinter Beach, Bellows adeptly manipulates mixed media to create a complex and dynamic composition that captures the character of the gritty swim spot and crowd that it attracted while making a biting social commentary. Bellows based the work on multiple single figure sketches, combining them into a congested riverside scene that revisits the theme of his 1907 oil painting Forty-two Kids (Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), which itself recalls Thomas Eakins' more bucolic The Swimming Hole (1844-45, Amon Carter Museum of Art, Fort Worth, Texas). Both Splinter Beach and Forty-two Kids depict a group of young boys cavorting by the water and are filled with various characters and vignettes. These are not the seaside dalliances of the wealthy, rather they are the urban adventures of the lower classes as they attempt to get brief respite from the stifling summer heat.

In both works Bellows captures the playful spirit of the boys and the youthful energy of the scenes. Forty-two Kids is a larger work that focuses on the foreground, employing bold brushwork and a strong use of light and shadow to capture the activity on the dock and in the river. In contrast, Splinter Beach is a more complex scene as the closely grouped figures are set against a fully rendered cityscape and is executed with a rougher aesthetic that suited its intended audience. "It seems appropriate, then, that Bellows evoked the comics in drawings like Splinter Beach. If the urban masses ever looked at The Masses, they would have seen pictures that showed their world in a manner they could recognize. No other contemporary art could make that claim." (Art for The Masses: A Radical Magazine and Its Graphics, 1911-1917, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1988, p. 154) Bellows had an affinity for the Splinter Beach subject first depicting the scene in a 1912 drawing (Boston Public Library, Boston, Massachusetts), followed by the present work the next year. In 1916, he produced a lithograph also titled Splinter Beach based on the present work.

A 1915 article in International Studio said of Bellows, "The artist himself gives us valuable critical assistance when he declares that he aims at 'manliness, frankness, and love of the game,' and again when he tells us that he is interested in 'the steam and sweat of the street.' And so he loves to paint the prize fight, the polo game, the circus, children swimming - anything that has in it life, joyousness, action, the movement of humans at play...He is genuinely refreshing and entertaining in the peculiarly same and happy way of one who has boyish perceptions and who invariably pauses by the way to observe the healthy comedy of everyday life." (quoted in M. Doezema, "Tenement Life: Cliff Dwellers, 1906-1913" in C. Brock et al., George Bellows, exhibition catalogue, 2012, Washington, D.C., pp. 53-54) Splinter Beach manifests this comment and, with its bold composition, gritty character, and progressive use of media demonstrates Bellows at the height of his abilities.

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