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Sunday, June 4, 2023

George Bellows


Following his death from appendicitis at the age of forty-two, Bellows’ multifaceted career was often reduced to myth. He became celebrated as the brash baseball player from the heartland who had reputedly rejected an offer to play for the Cincinnati Reds and went on to conquer the New York art world.

Fig. 1: Forty-two Kids, 1907. Oil on canvas, 42 x 60¼ inches. Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, Museum Purchase, William A. Clark Fund.
Popularly known for his boxing subjects, Bellows was usually associated with his mentor Robert Henri’s Ashcan School of urban realism. His imagery was rooted in the figurative and representational traditions of Western art, but the variety of Bellows’ work, its restless, experimental nature and its range of subjects and styles, also reflects his adherence to one of modernism’s essential principles. Like many other prominent early modernists Bellows championed the idea that artists should be free to express their ideas without constraints and allowed to show their work in open exhibitions unencumbered by the personal politics of juries or the formal rules of art academies.

Conforming neither to the dictates of tradition nor to those of modernism, Bellows was an artist uniquely equipped to address and navigate the dilemmas and tensions that characterized the dynamic transition from the late Victorian to the modern era. Having once remarked that “a work of art can be any imaginable thing, and this is the beginning of modern painting,” it is doubtful that Bellows ever would have settled on one approach to his art even if he had been fortunate enough to live into the 1960s like his great friend and contemporary Edward Hopper (1882–1967). Given his early death, Bellows’ career was instead destined to remain unfinished and a work in progress. Many of the themes he addressed, such as large-scale urban enterprises, sports competitions, political elections, family life, and religious revivals, are still a vital part of contemporary American life. What the radically democratic American poet Walt Whitman proclaimed in his great compendium Leaves of Grass, Bellows could also have said of himself: “I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Fig. 2: Dogs, Early Morning (Hungry Dogs), 1907. Graphite, pen and ink, and crayon, 13⅜ x 9⅞ inches.
Boston Public Library, Print Department, Gift of Albert H. Wiggin.


At the end of his junior year Bellows dropped out of Ohio State University and by fall had left Columbus intent on pursuing a career as an illustrator. He boarded at the YMCA on Fifty-Seventh Street and enrolled at the nearby New York School of Art, where he soon fell under the influence of Robert Henri (1865–1929). Henri urged his students to move beyond the ingratiating, genteel scenes then favored by the conservative National Academy of Design and instead to seek out contemporary subjects that would challenge prevailing standards of taste.

In response to Henri’s teachings, Bellows created drawings and paintings depicting the city’s impoverished immigrant population, works that in their originality, thematic scope, and variety of technique soon surpassed the early accomplishments of his talented classmates, Edward Hopper and Rockwell Kent. Bellows paid particular attention to the children who inhabited the squalid and dangerous tenements (Fig. 1). In complex, multifigured compositions, his lively, gestural brushwork expressed the essential vitality of his subjects as well as the precariousness of their lives played out on the margins of society. Bellows’ expressive paint handling was inextricably bound up with his extraordinary draftsmanship. Among his most impressive early works are the dark and turbulent crayon and charcoal drawings of New York’s public spectacles and urban netherworld (Fig. 2).

Fig. 4: Paddy Flannigan, 1908. Oil on canvas, 30¼ x 25 inches. Erving and Joyce Wolf.


Bellows’ early fight paintings chronicle the clandestine, often brutal fights that were organized by private clubs in New York to circumvent a state ban on public boxing. Displaying raw male aggression and reflecting the multiple viewpoints of a theater in the round, the artist’s early masterpieces broke decisively with the pieties of the Victorian era and were widely considered shocking. Bellows’ energetic, slashing brushwork matched the intensity and action of the fighters. Taking one of the most provocative contemporary subjects imaginable and delving into its underlying theme of human violence, Bellows created paintings that were at once topical and timeless (Fig. 3).
Fig. 5: A Morning Snow, 1910. Oil on canvas, 45 x 63¼ inches. Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Mrs. Daniel Catlin.

In addition to street scenes, Bellows also painted more formal studio portraits of the city’s working poor (Fig. 4). In these startlingly frank encounters, he captured the vulnerability of his sitters as well as their strength and resilience. They reflect the young artist’s profound understanding of the realist tradition of portraiture practiced by the seventeenth-century masters Diego Velázquez and Frans Hals, and by the late nineteenth-century painters Edouard Manet and James McNeill Whistler, all artists recommended to him by his teacher Henri.

The city and the river Bellows rarely portrayed the bustling downtown commercial districts of Manhattan, preferring instead to study the more indeterminate border areas he found near the river’s edge (Fig. 5).

Fig. 6: The Lone Tenement, 1909. Oil on canvas, 36⅛ x 48⅛ inches. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Chester Dale Collection.

Works such as The Lone Tenement (Fig. 6) show the East River with just a hint of the newly completed Queensboro Bridge above a solitary tenement building. Rather than emphasizing the public utility of the new bridge to Queens, Bellows highlights the empty space created to make way for it and the displacement of the people whose tenements had been razed. Bellows also depicted Riverside Park looking across the Hudson to the Palisades in numerous canvases. Initially designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1873, the park was nearing completion in 1909 when conservation efforts were under way to protect the cliffs of the Palisades on the far side of the Hudson from destruction. Bellows highlights the role of the machine in this urban oasis by including steamships on the river and trains along the shore, their presence sometimes indicated only by puffs of white steam.

Fig. 7: Pennsylvania Excavation, 1907. Oil on canvas, 33⅞ x 44 inches. Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton,
Gift of Mary Gordon Roberts, Class of 1960, in honor of her fiftieth reunion.

The series of four works Bellows devoted to the excavation site for the Pennsylvania Railroad Station focuses mainly on the primordial, subterranean pit in which workingmen toiled and sometimes lost their lives. One of the largest construction projects in the country, it entailed razing two entire city blocks. In Pennsylvania Excavation (Fig. 7) Bellows’ roughly applied oil paint becomes the physical equivalent of the snow-covered gravel and dirt churned up by the excavation. The monumental, nearly finished railroad station designed by McKim, Mead, and White appears in only one version (Blue Morning, 1909, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). In that instance Bellows obscured the grand neoclassical building in an atmospheric haze and concentrated attention on a huddle of anonymous workers in the foreground.

Fig. 8: Snow Dumpers, 1911. Oil on canvas, 36 x 48 inches. Columbus Museum of Art, Museum Purchase, Howald Fund.

Bellows once commented that “there is nothing I do not want to know that has to do with life or art.” He was interested in the municipal workers who dumped the city’s winter snow into the East River and the dock workers who loaded and unloaded cargo from the hulls of the ocean liners and freighters (Fig. 8). Bellows also drew upon the rich visual parade and pageantry of the life of the leisure classes unfolding across the seasons in New York’s parks (Fig. 9). He painted skaters in winter, women showing off their Easter fashions in early spring, and summer crowds lounging in Central Park.

Fig. 9: Easter Snow, 1915. Oil on canvas, 34 x 45 inches. Private Collection.

Bellows visited Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine for the first time in 1911 and returned to the state every summer from 1913 to 1916. Just as he had earlier surveyed the urban environment, he attempted an ambitious, all-encompassing overview of a world shaped by the natural forces of the sea. In 1913 alone he created more than a hundred outdoor studies, and his seascapes eventually accounted for half his entire output as a painter (Fig. 10). The vast majority were done after the 1913 Armory Show in New York, which had introduced Americans to the latest innovations of the international avant-garde. Bellows had little use for the cubist works on view there, but his marine paintings verify that he had looked closely at the impressive displays of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art.

Fig. 10: Sea in Fog, 1913. Oil on plywood panel, 15½ x 20 inches. Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Museum Purchase.

Bellows initially struggled with the issue, but eventually he supported America’s entry into World War I, resulting in an outpouring of works in 1918. For this extensive series of paintings, lithographs, and drawings the artist relied on the published accounts of German atrocities in Belgium found in the 1915 Bryce Committee Report commissioned by the British government.

Bellows, as usual, approached his subject in a variety of ways (Fig. 11). The large oils drew on the tradition of grand public history paintings, while many of the more psychologically disturbing lithographs were indebted to the Spanish master Francisco de Goya’s famous print series from the early nineteenth century, The Disasters of War. Inherently controversial, Bellows’ war images can be understood variously as blatant anti-German propaganda, as a passionate indictment of war, or as a difficult and disquieting body of work that explores the extremes of human violence.

Fig. 11: Return of the Useless, c. 1918. Oil on canvas, 59 x 66 inches. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Between 1913 and 1917 Bellows published twenty-four illustrations in the socialist magazine, The Masses. Reflecting the diversity of his paintings of the period, they ranged from urban street scenes and war subjects to river views and images of family life. Bellows’ relationships with prominent members of the American Left influenced his depictions of racial, religious, and gender issues (Fig. 12). He knew the anarchist Emma Goldman and the radical journalist John Reed and worked closely with the editor of The Masses, Max Eastman. Bellows, however, insisted that art maintain its independence from doctrinaire political movements: “I have always felt about art, that it was freedom that counted. A man must see and say things his own way.”

Fig. 12: Benediction in Georgia, 1916. Lithograph, 16⅛ x 20 inches. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fletcher Fund, 1971.


Bellows’ wife, Emma, was his lifelong artistic muse. Fellow art students at the New York School of Art, they met shortly after he arrived in New York. Bellows painted Emma in many guises after their marriage in 1910. Evoking the creative dimensions of their shared life, a painting such as Emma at the Piano (Fig. 13) unites the visual and the musical in ways that recall James McNeill Whistler’s subtle orchestration of a limited palette. Expressing how central Emma was to his artistic identity, Bellows wrote: “Can I tell you that your heart is in me and your portrait is in all my work? What can a man say to a woman who absorbs his whole life?” Bellows’ portraits of women constitute a much larger body of work than his boxing canvases. Depicting women at all stages of life, from childhood to old age, they offer a compelling counterpoint to the violent, predominantly male world of the fight paintings.

Fig. 13: Emma at the Piano, 1914. Oil on panel, 28¾ x 37.
Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Gift of Walter P. Chrysler Jr.

Beginning in 1920 Bellows began spending his summers in the rural art colony of Woodstock, New York. In 1922 he built a home and studio there where he continued to work in multiple styles, from the bucolic, pastoral approach of The Picnic, to the boldly colored folk-art manner of Lady Jean, to the somber palette and Old Master grandeur of Elinor, Jean and Anna. Dempsey and Firpo (Fig. 14), a studied contrast to his early masterpiece Stag at Sharkey’s and one of his last paintings, features a highly finished surface and a colorful palette more in keeping with the popular, commercial aspects of the now legal boxing event. The late paintings are both willfully traditional in their subject matter and insistently modern in their eclecticism and in the multiplicity of methods and styles they deploy. Too varied and imaginative to be easily summarized, they continue to defy any standard critical appraisal. As the American writer Sherwood Anderson astutely observed, Bellows’ last paintings “keep telling you things. They are telling you that Mr. George Bellows died too young. They are telling you that he was after something, that he was always after it.”

Fig. 14: Dempsey and Firpo, 1924. Oil on canvas, 51 x 63¼, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Purchase, with funds from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.

Charles Brock is associate curator of American and British Paintings at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

George Bellows, organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., in association with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Royal Academy of Arts, London, is on view in Washington through October 8, 2012; in New York from November 15, 2012, to February 18, 2013; and in London from March 16, 2013, to June 9, 2013. This article was adapted from the catalogue and wall texts for the exhibition.