Detail of George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925), Splinter Beach, 1913, and Bellows photographed in 1924. Behind him is a detail of his work Dempsey and Firpo, 1924. Photo by Florence

From the city to the sea — the life and art of George Bellows

A guide to the Ashcan School artist whose subjects ranged from New York’s working classes to the Maine coast, via the boxing ring and the Catskill Mountains. Illustrated with works offered in American Art  on 22 May 2018 in New York

  • 1
  • George Bellows could have been a contender — as a baseball player

George Bellows (1882-1925) was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio. Interested in sports at a young age, he played basketball and baseball throughout high school. By his senior year, his skill as a shortstop had attracted the attention of professional teams.

George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925),Hold Em, executed in August 1912. 22¼ x 21  in (56.5 x 53.3  cm). Sold for $362,500 on 4 December 2008 at Christie’s in New York

George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925),Hold 'Em, executed in August 1912. 22¼ x 21 in (56.5 x 53.3 cm). Sold for $362,500 on 4 December 2008 at Christie’s in New York

Bellows attended Ohio State University, where he played semi-professional baseball and was contacted by scouts for the Cincinnati Reds. Despite his affinity for sports, however, Bellows’ great love was art — and he would go on to express his passion for sport in drawing and painting.

  • 2
  • Boxing, bars and alleyways — Bellows and the Ashcan movement

In 1904, Bellows moved from Ohio to New York City to begin his education in art. He spent considerable time observing and sketching people throughout the city, and enrolled in classes at the New York School of Art. There he fell under the influence of Robert Henri, who taught life and composition classes and encouraged his students to seek inspiration from the city around them. 

The artistic movement Henri spearheaded came to be known as the Ashcan school — its name inspired by a drawing by Bellows captioned Disappointments of the Ash Can, depicting three men examining the contents of an ash can.

The Ashcan artists concentrated on unsentimental aspects of everyday life, including non-traditional subjects from the urban, lower and middle classes. Lonely bar scenes, shadowy alleyways, and energetic boxing matches were among the difficult subjects that these artists embraced.

One of Bellows’ earliest complete drawings from these early years, Meet of the ‘Daffydil’ Athletic Club  (above) is a particularly fine example of his work, not only for its superb quality and nuanced use of charcoal tones, but also for its gritty, urban subject matter.

  • 3
  • Bellows and the working-class

At the turn of the 20th century, the dominant Beaux Arts style equated high art with high society. Bellows instead found his inspiration in the working class.

George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925), Portrait of a Laughing Boy, painted in 1907. 24 x 18¼  in (61 x 46.4  cm). Sold for $291,750 on 23 May 2013 at Christie’s in New York

George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925), Portrait of a Laughing Boy, painted in 1907. 24 x 18¼ in (61 x 46.4 cm). Sold for $291,750 on 23 May 2013 at Christie’s in New York

More than one million Europeans entered America each year through New York’s harbour, and many stayed to build its bridges and skyscrapers, work in restaurants, or sell newspapers on the street. Bellows found it easy to mingle with them, and fought hard to capture their freshness and expressiveness on canvas. Portrait of a Laughing Boy  (above) represents one of the finest of this group; the artist’s painterly style forcefully conveys the young sitter’s restless energy.

  • 4
  • Bellows and The Masses

Bellows’ exquisite draughtsmanship was largely influenced by his early experiences as a graphic illustrator. Splinter Beach  (below) is one of an important series of illustrations that Bellows produced for the socialist magazine The Masses  in 1913. A complex, multi-figural composition, it captures the character of the gritty swim spot and the working-class crowd that it attracted.

George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925), Splinter Beach, executed in 1913. 17¼ x 22¾  in (43.2 x 57.8  cm), image; 21½ x 28  in (54.6 x 71.1  cm), sheet. Sold for $1,263,750 on 23 May 2013 at Christie’s in New York

George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925), Splinter Beach, executed in 1913. 17¼ x 22¾ in (43.2 x 57.8 cm), image; 21½ x 28 in (54.6 x 71.1 cm), sheet. Sold for $1,263,750 on 23 May 2013 at Christie’s in New York

Bellows was drawn to the freedom and energy of those involved with The Masses, writing that the magazine ‘offers the opportunity which artists and writers of young enthusiastic and revolutionary spirit have always wished for in this country’.

Bellows was always ahead of his time — the works he executed for The Masses  are not merely drawings, but mixed media over transfer lithographs. This early foray into experimental lithography places Bellows among an esteemed group of artists who worked in various media over prints, including Edgar Degas, Winslow Homer and Jasper Johns.

  • 5
  • Bellows, pastels, and action

In January 1911, a new artists’ society called The Pastellists held their first of four exhibitions at the Folsom Galleries in New York. Organised by Elmer Livingston MacRae and presided over by Leon Dabo, the group aimed to promote the medium of pastel and the unique, personal sort of artwork often overlooked by Academy exhibitions.

George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925), Football Game, executed in 1910. 14⅝ x 24  in (37.2 x 61  cm). Offered in American Art on 22 May 2018 at Christie’s in New York

George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925), Football Game, executed in 1910. 14⅝ x 24 in (37.2 x 61 cm). Offered in American Art on 22 May 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Bellows contributed two works in pastel to this inaugural exhibition: Polo Game  and Football Game  (above). The New York Times  praised the works as ‘shortened notes of violent motion’, while a critic for Art and Progress  applauded them as ‘extraordinary examples of action in art… full of strength and power… as well as movement’.

  • 6
  • Bellows and the islands of Maine

Each summer, Bellows sought artistic inspiration away from the heat of New York City. Bellows first visited Monhegan, Maine, in the summer of 1911 at the invitation of Robert Henri. The island’s raw beauty, dramatic coastline and roiling sea provided the ideal scenery for Bellows’ style.

George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925), Tumble of Waters, painted in 1913. 15 x 19½  in (38.1 x 49.5  cm). Offered in American Art on 22 May 2018 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $275,000

George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925), Tumble of Waters, painted in 1913. 15 x 19½ in (38.1 x 49.5 cm). Offered in American Art on 22 May 2018 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $275,000

He was captivated by the variety of pictorial possibilities, writing, ‘the island is endless in its wonderful variety. It's possessed of enough beauty to supply a continent’. Bellows was so inspired by the distinctive character of the topography and its inhabitants that he returned two summers later, painting some of the most visceral depictions of nature of his career.

Maine soon became his favourite destination. He would spend months there on extended vacations, visiting coastal communities such as Camden or Ogunquit, or ferrying out to the islands.

George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925), Evening Blue (Tending the Lobster Traps. Early Morning), painted in 1916. 18 x 22  in (45.7 x 55.9  cm). Offered in American Art on 22 May 2018 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $1,272,500

George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925), Evening Blue (Tending the Lobster Traps. Early Morning), painted in 1916. 18 x 22 in (45.7 x 55.9 cm). Offered in American Art on 22 May 2018 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $1,272,500

Executed in 1916 on Matinicus Island during Bellows’ last summer in Maine, Evening Blue  (above) reflects his deep connection to the landscape and exemplifies his boldly modern experimentations with colour during this period.

  • 7
  • His Maine paintings were bracketed with Winslow Homer

Bellows’ seascapes were seen in his day as a natural outgrowth of the work of Winslow Homer. As one critic noted: ‘Mr. Bellows has been spending some time on the rocky Maine coast and no doubt the same things that operated on Winslow Homer’s mind have operated on his.’

In January 1914, Bellows organised an exhibition of his 1913 Maine paintings at New York’s Montross Gallery. ‘Following in Winslow Homer's footsteps,’ wrote one critic of the show, Bellows ‘has translated… with remarkable strength and sympathy, the scenery, the sea and the humans of the stern and rockbound Maine Coast.’

  • 8
  • Bellows and the sea

Bellows was drawn to water throughout his career, and many of his urban scenes depict the docks and waterside parks of America’s east coast.

George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925), The Dock, painted in 1913. 15 x 19½  in (38.1 x 49.5  cm). Sold for $1,985,000 on 19 November 2015 at Christie’s in New York

George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925), The Dock, painted in 1913. 15 x 19½ in (38.1 x 49.5 cm). Sold for $1,985,000 on 19 November 2015 at Christie’s in New York

According to Franklin Kelly, curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Bellows was ‘fascinated by the sea, but he was also repelled by it. With its timeless mystery and power the sea inspired him to create some of his most moving and evocative paintings, but it also frustrated him, reminding him of his own inadequacies as he struggled to capture its essential nature on canvas. Often invigorated by watching the relentless energy of great ocean surges, he could equally be daunted by the sea's vastness, finding his thoughts turned back upon himself and upon doubts and insecurities.’

  • 9
  • Bellows and Woodstock

Bellows first visited the Catskill Mountain village of Woodstock in the spring of 1920, at the invitation of fellow artist Eugene Speicher. The Art Students League had hosted teaching sessions there beginning in 1906; with the formation of the Woodstock Artists Association in 1919, resident artists finally had a space in which to exhibit their work.

George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925), Old Barn, Grey Day, painted in 1920. 18 x 22  in (45.7 x 55.9  cm). Offered in American Art on 22 May 2018 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $81,250

George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925), Old Barn, Grey Day, painted in 1920. 18 x 22 in (45.7 x 55.9 cm). Offered in American Art on 22 May 2018 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $81,250

The paintings Bellows produced during his time at Woodstock — where he would eventually build a home for his family, and spend half of each year — were informed by the surrounding mountains, lush fields, lakes and streams. Executed in a palette of mostly primary colours, and painted with confident brushwork, the Woodstock landscapes stand apart from the rest of the artist’s production. 

  • 10
  • The market for George Bellows’ art

Bellows’ sports-themed works have consistently been some of the most popular with collectors, says Paige Kestenman, American Art specialist at Christie’s in New York. Several of the top auction prices for the artist are for works that feature polo, tennis or boxing.

George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925), Evening Swell, painted in 1911. 30 x 38  in (76.2 x 96.5  cm). Sold for $7,893,000 on 5 December 2013 at Christie’s in New York

George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925), Evening Swell, painted in 1911. 30 x 38 in (76.2 x 96.5 cm). Sold for $7,893,000 on 5 December 2013 at Christie’s in New York

In recent years examples from the artist’s time in Maine have also seen strong demand. In December 2013, Evening Swell  (above) sold for $7,893,000 at Christie’s in New York.