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George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925)
Property from a Private Midwestern Collection
George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925)

Evening Blue (Tending the Lobster Traps. Early morning)

Details
George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925)
Evening Blue (Tending the Lobster Traps. Early morning)
bears inscription 'Geo. Bellows/E.S.B.' (lower left)
oil on panel
18 x 22 in. (45.7 x 55.9 cm.)
Painted in 1916.
Provenance
The artist.
Estate of the above, 1925.
Emma S. Bellows, wife of the artist.
H.V. Allison & Co., Inc., New York.
William W. Hoffman, New York, 1957.
James Graham & Sons, New York.
Acquired by the present owner from the above, 1987.
Literature
Artist's Record Book B, p. 77 (as Tending the Lobster Traps. Early morning).
Exhibited
New York, H.V. Allison & Co., Inc., George Bellows, May 1-31, 1957.
New York, H.V. Allison & Co., Inc., George Bellows, May 7-31, 1963.
Los Angeles, California, Los Angeles County Museum of Art; New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Columbus, Ohio, Columbus Museum of Art; Fort Worth, Texas, Amon Carter Museum, The Paintings of George Bellows, February 16, 1992-May 9, 1993, pp. 44, 253, fig. 39, illustrated.

Brought to you by

Annie Rosen
Annie Rosen

Lot Essay

To be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the paintings of George Bellows being prepared by Glenn C. Peck. An online version of the catalogue is available at www.hvallison.com.


Every summer from 1911 until 1916, George Bellows searched out cooler climes for new artistic inspiration away from the heat of New York City. Maine was his favorite destination, and he would spend months there on extended vacations, visiting either coastal communities such as Camden or Ogunquit, or ferrying out to the islands. Executed on Matinicus Island during Bellows’ last summer in Maine, Evening Blue of September 1916 reflects the artist’s deep connection to the landscape of the area and exemplifies his boldly modern experimentations with color during this period of his career.

Only two miles long with a total area of 720 acres, Matinicus is one of the most remote islands along the New England coast, located twenty miles from the shore of Rockland, Maine. Derived from a Native American word meaning “far out island,” Matinicus has long been a close-knit community of sailors and fishermen removed from the busy tourism of nearby Monhegan Island. Bellows first visited the isle in the summer of 1913, when he and his wife Emma ventured over from Monhegan and spent the night in a fisherman’s house. The couple next returned to Matinicus in September 1916, this time staying for about a month. Michael Quick writes of this second sojourn, “In that time he produced nearly thirty fine paintings of it and the neighboring island sometimes known as Criehaven. Bellows considered them, like Rockport and Camden, to be unspoiled corners of rustic America, free of the summer visitors who flocked to Monhegan. He painted very few pictures of the sea, instead painting informal corners of the island and the farms of its inhabitants. Matinicus from Mt. Aratat [Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine] and Ox Team, Wharf at Matinicus [The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York] are characteristic of the relaxed, snapshot quality of the fresh, brightly colored landscape sketches.” (M. Quick, “Technique and Theory: The Evolution of George Bellows’s Painting Style,” in The Paintings of George Bellows, exhibition catalogue, Fort Worth, Texas, 1992, pp. 58, 61)

Evening Blue is one of those few pictures of the sea from Bellows’ time in Matinicus, employing the same expressive brushwork and bright coloration to a scene of lobstermen in the coastal waters off the island. Although the work has been known as Evening Blue, Bellows most likely referenced the work in his record book of September 1916 as Tending the Lobster Traps. Early morning, reflecting the usual routine of the fishermen who would check their traps shortly after dawn rather than at night. The gradation of the sky from dark to light, suggesting a still lightening sky or perhaps the misty fog of the early morn, sets the daybreak scene. Through the leaves of a tree, the viewer peers down from the rocky shoreline to spy the lobstermen hard at work hefting the large traps into their dinghies. The chaotic coastal flora with tall, spindly trees, encroaching roots and uneven rocky cliffs emphasize the tough nature of the environment in which these men must labor. Similarly, the amalgamation of greens, deep blues and whites in the near water, and the sharp upturned angle of the green boat, indicate that the waves and tides of the Atlantic Ocean are an obstacle to face, even during the calm hours at the start of the day. The power of the scene is further amplified by the relatively large scale of the painting; Bellows’ plein air works from Maine were typically executed on 11 x 15 or 15 x 20 inch size panels, while the present work maintains an ‘of-the-moment’ feeling even in a larger, fully realized composition of 18 x 22 inches.

With these elements of the work coalescing to underscore the inhospitable nature of the coast of Maine, Evening Blue reflects a major theme present throughout Bellows’ career—struggle. Whether as manifested in the competition of the boxing ring or polo field, the tribulations of life on the street or the travails of the working class, the conflict of man against himself as he faces obstacles is a continuing motif in Bellows’ work that adds underlying meaning to many of his best compositions. James M. Keny further explains how this theme manifests in Bellows’ Maine paintings, writing, "Beginning with Shore House, completed in early 1911, and continuing during trips to Maine—Monhegan Island in 1911, 1913 and 1914 and Camden and Matinicus Island in 1916—Bellows addressed man as provider and the ever-present, often isolating demands associated with that role." Indeed, Bellows had recently married his wife, Emma Story, and they soon after had their first child, placing him in the role of provider for his new family. This sense of responsibility resonates with the scene of Evening Blue, in which the men are working hard to literally put food on the table. Keny continues, "Perhaps Bellows engaged his new theme because of its more personal meaning for him." ("Brief Garland: A Life of George Bellows," Timeline: A Publication of the Ohio Historical Society, vol. 9, 1992, p. 25)

Bellows’ concentration on the harshness of life for fishermen along the Maine coast famously follows in the footsteps of nineteenth-century painter Winslow Homer. From his paintings of fisherwomen waiting for their husbands to return from their adventures to his powerful depictions focusing solely on crashing waves, Homer’s work inspired by his life in Prout’s Neck, Maine, revolves around the symbiotic yet difficult relationship of man with the sea. The Maine output of Homer and Bellows notably share a deep understanding and appreciation for this powerful force of nature, and furthermore a rare ability to convey that unique spirit and energy of the landscape to their viewers. As Franklin Kelly explains, “Their paintings were assertive not only because they depicted scenes brimming with natural and man-made energy, but also because the canvases themselves were alive with artistic energy and purpose…Homer was a nineteenth-century artist who managed, as very few of his generation did, to paint pictures in the twentieth century that both summed up what had gone before and embraced the future with a spirit of innovation. Bellows was a twentieth-century artist who, like equally few of his generation, managed to absorb the lessons of the past and transform them into a personal and fully modern idiom.” (“’So Clean and Cold’: Bellows and the Sea,” in The Paintings of George Bellows, p. 137)

In Evening Blue, this palpable energy and modern aesthetic is largely derived from Bellows’ extraordinary use of color throughout the scene. Bellows co-organized the seminal Armory Show of 1913 and had the opportunity to study the work of the European Expressionists and Fauvists that were exhibiting in New York for the first time. The following summer, he wrote to his friend and mentor, Robert Henri, “I have been working with the colors and not much hue [more neutral color] and find a lot of new discoveries for me in the process.” (as quoted in The Paintings of George Bellows, p. 44) This new direction to a high-key palette was also influenced by his close relationships with two other American modernists, Leon Kroll and Andrew Dasburg. Sarah Cash explains, "Kroll and Dasburg likely encouraged not only the brightening of Bellows' palette, but also his nascent understanding of how to model form through color relationships in the manner of Paul Cézanne; while in Paris, both were greatly influenced by the French master's work and enthusiastically endorsed it to their fellow American artists. Bellows, for his part, admired Cézanne and would have encountered his distinctive style in works...exhibited at the Armory Show....as well as in publications and other recent exhibitions. In a letter to his Ohio State University professor Joseph Taylor, Bellows all but conjures the artist in describing his new use of strong color to render objects: 'I have been trying to discern dignity in [the] powerful colors I have been painting...great, dignified masses can just as well or better often be made with powerful colors as with grays." ("Life At Sea, 1911-1917," in George Bellows, exhibition catalogue, New York, 2012, p. 162)

By 1916, Bellows was pushing his color play further than ever, as seen in the harmonious rainbow of hues present in just the rocky cliffs of the present work; rich blues and reds represent shadows and oranges and yellows signify the sun-exposed stone. The exceptionally vivid blues of the sea and sky are derived from a starkly intense color palette, which makes even the darkest shades employed seem vibrant and fresh. Bellows wrote to Henri that summer of 1916 “that he was doing ‘extra fine work’ and continuing his experiments with color.” (“’So Clean and Cold’: Bellows and the Sea,” p. 162) He thought of his compositions in color much as a musician combining notes for a harmonious melody, and would often annotate the back of panels or his record book with a series of letters and numbers to help organize his spectrum of color for each work. Glenn Peck writes that he “told of using what he termed a ‘paint piano.’ The annotations of color choices in the record book read much like a musical score.” (“The Record Books of George Bellows: A Visual Diary,” in George Bellows, p. 301) Indeed, the artist himself described his almost imaginative use of color while in Matinicus, writing, “I have done a number of pictures this summer which have not arrived in my mind from direct impressions but are creations of fancy arising out of my knowledge and experience of the facts employed. The result…has nevertheless evolved into very rare pictures.” (as quoted in Toward an American Identity: Selections from the Wichita Art Museum Collection of American Art, Wichita, Kansas, 1997, p. 94)

Capturing the classic theme of the complex relationship between man and nature along the coast of Maine, and employing the thoroughly modern, expressive color palette of his last summer there, Evening Blue exhibits the expressive fervor and bold experimentation which established Bellows as an icon of American modernism. As Michael Quick reflects, “The visual and emotional force of their gorgeous color, which achieves a dazzling opulence exceeded in the work of few American painters of the period, makes the paintings of 1916 and 1917 among the most handsome and enjoyable that Bellows ever produced. In the three charmed periods—1913, 1916-17, and 1924—when Bellows painted in his strongest color, its exuberance stands comparison with that of any of the Fauve-inspired American modernists. The delightful paintings of these periods demonstrate not only his exceptional gifts in using color, but also, in the spirit of the modernists, his joy in doing so.” (“Technique and Theory: The Evolution of George Bellows’s Painting Style,” p. 63)

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