New York, 1911, by George Bellows
Until recently, the National Gallery in London considered its purview to be European painting of the 13th through 19th centuries. One has to smile at its recent decision to finally acknowledge America’s coming of age as an artistic powerhouse. It has done so by the acquisition of a 20th century painting, Men of the Docks, by George Bellows.
That the National Gallery considers Bellows to be the iconic American painter is peculiar, considering we are also the nation that produced Cole, Church, Whistler, Sargent, Hopper, Copley, Homer, Prendergast, Rockwell, Glackens, the Wyeths, and so many other indisputable greats.
Blue Snow, the Battery, 1910, by George Bellows. Bellows was exploring the tension between the natural and built world in his New York snow paintings.
“Bellows has almost always been seen in the context of American painting, but the way he painted owed much to Manet, and his depiction of the violence and victims of New York derived from Goya and earlier Spanish art,” said gallery director Dr. Nicholas Penny.
Ah. America seen through the lens of violence and victimhood. While that is a narrow view of America, it is also a narrow view of Bellows.
Cliff Dwellers, 1913, by George Bellows.
Bellows' urban paintings depict the energy and chaos of working-class New York. His boxing paintings are undeniably violent, but there is no particular victimhood there—rather, there is brute power. Nor is there any overt victimhood in the slums of New York or in his shipbuilding scenes. Americans of the time saw tenements and hard work as opportunity rather than oppression.
Builders of Ships / The Rope, 1916, by George Bellows.
Bellows was associated with a group of radical artists and activists called “the Lyrical Left.” This group, which included the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, was not leftist in the modern sense of the word. Rather, they advocated an extreme idea of personal liberties, tending toward anarchism. While Bellows contributed work to socialist publications, he was frequently at odds with their editorial staff.
In 1918, he did five large oils and 16 lithographs about atrocities against civilians by the German army at the beginning of World War I. These works—rather than his New York scenes—most explicitly quote Goya.
Breaking Sky, Monhegan, 1916, by George Bellows. My workshop students ought to recognize this view.
Yes, he focused on the grime of urban living and on social commentary, but he also painted untouched expanses of snow, shipbuilding in New England, and the pounding of waves on the rocks at Monhegan and Matinicus.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!