In the early summer of 1916, George Bellows and his family moved to Camden, Maine, a small harbor village located on Penobscot Bay. Bellows had first visited Maine in 1911 and the anticipation of the temporary move with his wife and two young daughters was a welcome retreat for the artist from the restless winter months in New York. "Camden, with its miraculous fountain of water plunging into its narrow harbor, was a romantic town" and the town's affable subjects offered Bellows a breadth of inspiration to explore in his art. (C.H. Morgan, George Bellows: Painter of America, New York, 1965, p. 200) The months in Camden would prove to be productive and Bellows was pleased with the subjects he found there, particularly with the rigorous ship builders he found around the docks. Bellows was "filled with awe" at the magnificent sight of the energetic workmen and created some of his most celebrated works from this period, including Shipyard Society (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia) and The Rope (Builders of Ships) (Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut).
Wet Night was most likely the first work Bellows painted during this prolific summer. The vivid scene reveals the artist's concern with capturing atmospheric effects in his canvases. Budd Harris Bishop comments that, "Bellows seemed to prefer, when the subject warranted the method, to decentralize his composition, to create an 'overall' surface effect that requires a very active eye. While earlier artists suppressed secondary details and elements for the sake of a strong central image, Bellows delights in covering the canvas with visually stimulating incidents." ("George W. Bellows: Observations on His Style," George Wesley Bellows: Paintings, Drawings and Prints, Columbus, Ohio, 1979, p. 9) Wet Night masterfully embodies this 'overall' effect that is both brilliantly stunning and evocatively moody in color and brushwork.
In Wet Night, Bellows continues to draw upon compositions and color schemes from earlier works. The figure at left is closely related to one from the composition of Easter Snow, painted a few months before during the winter of 1915. The figure is therefore not a specific person, but rather a compositional device that serves Bellows' needs to create a dramatic overall composition and tension in the scene. John Wilmerding comments that "Bellows' figures do more than give scale or make incidental detail: they participate, even struggle, within these landscapes, which in turn are often roiled or churned up with their own narrative power." ("The Art of George Bellows and the Energies of Modern America," p. 3) The figure in Wet Night precariously descends the set of stairs and braces himself against the elements as wind and rain sweep through the scene.
Further underscoring the overall atmospheric effect achieved in Wet Night and tying this composition together is the bold color scheme employed by Bellows. At this time, "the artist's new strength of color achieved an especially satisfying balance and complex richness...The set palettes that he noted in his record book became more extensive, while also becoming quite specific about the intensity, or saturation, of the colors." During this period, "the increased darkness of these new paintings is offset by a much greater intensity of color, giving an impression of equal vividness." (M. Quick, "Technique and Theory: The Evolution of George Bellows's Painting Style," The Paintings of George Bellows, New York, 1992, p. 55) Bellows has infused the present work with a broad range of color, dominated by dense greens and rich harmonies of black and blue. "That summer he experimented with blacks again, and many of his paintings done in June and July are remarkable for their dramatic contrasts of light and shade." (George Bellows: Painter of America, p. 201) Even for a night scene, the present work is rendered with a remarkable brightness. Bellows has directly applied pure color upon fields of black paint. By doing so, each pigment appears more deeply saturated and presents a vivid contrast of light and dark that creates the heightened sense of color that characterizes a summer rainstorm.
No extant sketches for the present work are known and the style in which the paint has been applied indicates that Bellows was working quickly and directly on the canvas in order to achieve an overall atmospheric quality. With the use of a brush and a palette knife, Bellows has aggressively painted and scratched away at the canvas, disrupting the surface to create varied and textured passages that echo the slickness of the rain falling on the street and whipping through the trees. The dynamism of the work is a carefully balanced interplay of composition and application of paint. The dark and blustery evening is underscored by Bellows' distinct use of line and color. Slashing strokes of paint reinforce the effects of the wind and rain moving through the trees and beating upon the lone figure. He has exploited the visceral qualities of his paint surface to create a sensual and complex work that successfully captures the physical and emotional spirit of the scene.
Identified for his realistic depictions of landscape and portraiture, George Bellows also distinguished himself by pursuing a more modern aesthetic in his art. In Wet Night he has painted beyond the traditional definitions of landscape, portraiture and genre, and infused the scene with a deeply emotional spirit.
This painting will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work being compiled by Glenn C. Peck in cooperation with the artist's daughter and grandchildren. We are grateful to Mr. Peck for his assistance with this catalogue entry.