The muscular art of painter George Bellows, like his nation, is a study in contrasts.
The kid was all-American, a college dropout from Ohio and a minor league baseball player. He showed up in New York City in 1904 and KO’d the art world. “My life begins at this point,” he said. “The rest is legend.” Young George Bellows made his reputation with the sinewy brush strokes and virile violence of his fight canvases. “I don’t know anything about boxing,” he said. “I am just painting two men trying to kill each other.” He went on to paint city and country, land and sea, the hoi polloi and the hoity-toity—all with muscular intensity. In a major show from the National Gallery of Art, now traveling to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and London’s Royal Academy, the kid earns his crown as “the quintessential American artist.”
Man of the People
Whether reacting to his conservative upbringing or entranced by his new surroundings, Bellows plunged into street life, his documentary and democratic canvases as crowded as the tenements. He used models but also memories of long walks around New York, where he spied vignettes to later elaborate in sketches and lithographs. Cliff Dwellers originated from a drawing he did for leftie rag The Masses, captioned “Why Don’t They Go to the Country for Vacation?” Although he marched for women’s rights with his wife, Emma, a fellow art student, and protested unemployment, Bellows was not particularly political, calling the artist “a spectator of life; a reverential, enthusiastic, emotional spectator.”
Man of the World
He captured not only grit but gentility. As a successful painter who had won every major award in the United States, a sought-after teacher, a member of an erudite artistic circle—and a family man with two daughters and a country house—Bellows became increasingly obsessed with formal theories of color and composition. His portraits, many of family members, make historical references even as modern art was on the cusp of change. No one knows whether Bellows would have ventured further into realism or abstraction, because in 1925, at age 42, he died of a ruptured appendix. The day after, the New York Times reported, “The market value of his best work had doubled.” Fellow student Edward Hopper wept at his friend’s funeral. Hopper went on to live for four more decades and come into his full powers as an artist; Bellows’ mature work will never be seen. But you just know the kid would have knocked it out of the ballpark.
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.