A vital depiction of real American experience from George Bellows.
George Wesley Bellows (1882–1925).
Riverfront No.1, 1915.
Oil on canvas, 45 3/8 x 63 1/8 in. (115.3 x 160.3 cm).
Until 9 June 2013
George Bellows was a product of the so-called Ashcan School run by Robert Henri who "wanted paint to be as real as mud, as the clods of horse-shit and snow, that froze on Broadway in the winter."
There are few American painters that have captured the feel of snow better than Bellows, other than Andrew Wyeth, seventy-five years later. Bellows’ Snow Dumpers is a masterful painting, full of drama and dynamism, with the helmeted workers backing horse-drawn wagons up to the East River’s edge to unload their shovelled snow, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, with a steam tug chugging past. The same tug reappears in some of his other work, including The Bridge, Blackwell’s Island and Splinter Beach, and then again in Riverfront, No. 1, 1914, which was in the Washington and New York exhibitions, but, sadly, not in the London one.
This slice of urban realism is typical of Bellows’ work, as are his views of Penn Station being excavated, both at night and in the snow, and a bustling composite view of New York painted in 1911. His most celebrated painting is probably Forty-two Kids, painted four years earlier, and shows, well, 42 kids, mostly naked, standing, lying or diving off a dilapidated wooden pier in the Hudson East River. Twenty years before that, Thomas Eakins painted The Swimming Hole, which displays, in a more stilted way, his fellow students swimming and diving off a rock in an idyllic river setting.
Whereas Eakins used photography to capture the various poses, Bellows sketched mainly from life. Both the British artist Henry Tuke and the German Impressionist Max Liebermann, had earlier painted young boys cavorting about in the water, although the former’s motives may have been more prurient than artistic. Bellows’ energetic boxing scenes are full of punch, literally, as well as beautifully observed spectators around the ring, and the most famous of these is Stag of Sharkey’s, depicting a prize fight at Tom Sharkey’s Athletic Club, across the way from his studio in the Lower East Side. There is true homage to the old masters, Velazquez and Franz Hals, in his use of paint in his portraiture, as well as nods towards Manet and Whistler, and even Sickert. His seascapes have a great understanding of the way waves swirl, eddy and crash against rocks, as well as the calm and reflections off water. Although he was not in the Great War, he took it as the subject of five monumental paintings, four of which are included in the RA show, along with some truly horrific lithographs. These are stark, brutal images that drive home the futility and cruelty of war like a stake through the heart. He went to live in a house in Woodstock, in upstate New York , with his wife and two daughters, a great success, both critically and financially, even more famous than his fellow student Edward Hopper.
He continued to paint until his untimely death from a ruptured appendix aged just forty-two, but his later portraits had acquired a stiffness, and his landscapes, like The Picnic and The White Horse, became very busy, with too many focal points, as though he was trying to cram everything onto the canvas at once. This is a balanced and well-curated exhibition which may come as a welcome diversion from the hordes flocking to the Manet downstairs.
Footnote: It is a puzzling thing that, exactly 20 years ago, the Royal Academy staged an exhibition entitled American Art in the 20th Century, featuring Painting and Sculpture 1913-1993. In the lead-up to the current show, the RA have been extolling the skills of this artist, stating that he was considered one of the greatest artists in America . . . and he chronicled America’s pursuits and passions like no artist before or since. Yet, neither in the 1993 exhibition, nor in its catalogue, does he feature at all, and only warrants one mention. ‘In terms of artistic rank, a Kenneth Hayes Miller, a Reginald Marsh, a George Bellows, were no more than visual journalists, reporters with the brush. They illustrated rather than shaped our times.’ Curious.
Originally published in Kensington and Chelsea Today.