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 in New York
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.