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GEORGE BELLOWS

(1882-1925)

AMERICAN ASHCAN SCHOOL PAINTER

by Danielle Peltakian

Ashcan artist George Bellows became the signatory painter of American city life at the beginning of 20th-century. His powerful paintings of boxing matches and street scenes captured the energy and excitement that characterized the engine of America’s success – life in New York City.




Table of Contents

I. BIOGRAPHY

On August 19, 1882, George Wesley Bellows was born to Anna Smith and George Bellows in Colombus, Ohio. Like many young men of his time, the young Bellows had a passion for baseball. At the age of 19, he enrolled in Ohio State University (OSU), where he played on the school’s baseball team, joined the local chapter of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity, and read Walt Whitman in his spare time.

While baseball seemed to be the young man’s first love, his passion for art grew at a rapid rate. Since his high school days, Bellows had a strong interest and talent in art. However, as typical protocol for entering freshman at OSU, Bellows was banned from all art classes. Disinterested in almost every other course, he impatiently waited for the next school year to arrive. Once a sophomore, he quickly enrolled in the university’s art classes and even became the leading illustrator for the school yearbook, the Makio.

In the course of his senior year, Bellows left OSU to attend the New York School of Art. He registered at a time when two of America’s greatest painters and rivals, William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri, were current faculty. While Bellows enjoyed the aging Chase’s instruction, it was the progressive-minded Henri that immediately became his idol. Over time, Bellows impressed his instructor with his talent and even was invited to Henri’s famous “Tuesday Evenings.” On these intimate occasions, only Henri’s closest friends and favorite students were invited to view his studio and collection. Barely in his early twenties, Bellows felt honored to be a part of Henri’s circle, often called “The Eight” or the “Ashcan School.”

In the early winter of 1906, Bellows completed the painting Kids, which summed up his education under Henri and established himself as a promising young artist. Upon viewing the painting, Henri vowed to his pupil that it would be included in the final exhibition of the Society of American Artists. After the positive reception of his paintings, Bellows took a studio of his own in the Lincoln Arcade Building at 1947 Broadway.

Just as his career was taking off, Bellows managed to persuade his longtime girlfriend of 5 years to marry him. Emma Story was the daughter of a prominent businessman from Upper Montclair, New Jersey. Bellows had first met her when she was a student of William Merritt Chase. She was a strong-minded, beautiful woman who closely resembled in form the ideal Gibson Girl of the early 20th century. During their courtship, it was clear that Ms. Story had the upper hand. She took her time accepting Bellows’ marriage proposal. Though deeply in love with him, she only agreed to Bellows’ offer after his father put up $10,000 for a house on “the Block Beautiful” in Long Island.

With a new wife to support, Bellows supplemented his income by teaching at the Art Students League in 1909. However, he disliked his experience as an instructor and soon moved his attention to furthering his career as a painter. Over the next several years, Bellows succeeded and won many awards for his paintings submitted to national juried exhibitions. In 1913, he became a member of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors and helped plan the Armory Show of that year. Bellows had five paintings and a handful of drawings on display. However, it soon became clear that the abstraction present at the Armory Show was something that went against his own vision for art and what he had learned from Henri. Jolted by the European and American modern art on display, Bellows promptly withdrew from the Association.

Though his figural paintings of working-class people and amateur boxing matches seemed out of place among the abstractions on display at the Armory Show, they fit in quite well in the traditional styles of the National Academy of Design (NAD). In the same year of the Armory Show, Bellows was named an Associate of the National Academy of Design at the age of 30, becoming the youngest artist ever to be elected.

In the custom of his mentor, Robert Henri, Bellows actively traveled around the United States on sketching trips. Beginning in 1912, Bellows visited Monhegan Island in Maine. Enchanted by the Eastern coastline, he executed more than thirty seascapes in a single summer. By 1917, he had gained popularity in this genre and was invited to participate as an instructor at the Artists Colony in Carmel, CA. In his late thirties, it appears that Bellows took a renewed look at teaching. In 1919, he accepted an offer to teach at the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

However, it was not long before Bellows moved back to New York. After all, it was in this metropolis that the artist had first found his inspiration. Enjoying the fruits of his labor and a blissful family life, he purchased a second home in Woodstock, NY for his wife and two daughters. In Woodstock, he set up a Squash Club and was even neighbors with many of his old artist friends, including William Glackens.

Unfortunately, his happiness would not last much longer. On the morning of January 2, 1925, while preparing for an upcoming exhibition, Bellows felt a sharp pain in his abdomen. His appendix had ruptured. After an unsuccessful surgery and six painful days on a hospital bed, he died at the age of 42. The artist’s youth and energy made his abrupt death all the more shocking to the art community, especially to the much older Robert Henri.

After his death, his devoted wife Emma Bellows worked on almost every show of his, including the memorial retrospective of 1925 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1929, she collaborated with Robert Henri in creating a catalogue raisonné of her late-husbands work. Several critics have stated that, if it was not for Emma Bellows, George Bellows’ reputation and art may not have survived as well as it has today.

II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK

In the less than twenty years that he was an artist, George Bellows won over 15 prestigious awards and produced countless paintings that have since become icons of American art. Few American artists of the twentieth century have achieved such a reputation, and even fewer have done so in such a short time frame. In his lifetime, Bellows never had the difficulty of finding an audience for his art. His personality was likable and his work was well-received. In the tradition of his predecessors, he captured scenes of urban life that were never too crude or too vulgar to sell.

Bellows took to his grave what he learned as a young man inside the classrooms of the New York School of Art. As an instructor and already a proclaimed hero of American art, the artist Robert Henri would extol his maxims to his eager students: “Anything that strikes you as real is worthy to be painted.” A look at the catalogue raisonné of Bellows’ work suggests that this instruction would become the young artist’s mantra for the remainder of his life.

Originally from the countryside, Bellows’ move to bustling New York City deeply affected his art. It was in the City that he first learned art theory and also where he saw his first boxing match. With fresh eyes, Bellows observed what natives of the city were too busy or too accustomed to notice. He painted the crowded streets of the urban slums, with clotheslines strewn from building to building. The New Yorkers appear to be “alive” in his paintings: mother’s admonish their children for playing in a crowded street; a policeman directs traffic in a busy intersection; and a boxer guards his face from an impending left jab.

What set Bellows apart from Henri and the Ashcan artists was his skill in capturing Americans in their favorite pastimes. He was an athlete after all and sports were what was “real” to him. His boxing scenes are energetic. Through the elongation of the human form and their “S”-shaped silhouettes, every punch and every broken nose is suggested.

Though he had an immense talent for illustrating, he rarely made sketches for his paintings. Likened to a virtuoso, Bellows applied his impressions and experiences of the world directly onto his canvases. For Bellows, daily occurrences were never to be overlooked as trivial; rather, they carried the potential to become inspirtation for his canvases. If he had looked away for even a moment, the name George Bellows may never have graced the canon of American art history.

III. CHRONOLOGY

  • 1882 Born in Columbus, OH
  • 1901 Attended Ohio State University where he made drawings for school publications
  • 1904 Leaves Ohio State University to study under Robert Henri at the New York School of Art
  • 1906 Rents a studio in the Lincoln Arcade
  • 1909 Teaches at the Art Students League. Marries Emma Story and buys house in Long Island
  • 1911 Visits Monhegan Island. Daughter Anne is born.
  • 1913 Exhibits in Armory Show and elected a full member of the National Academy of Design
  • 1915 Daughter Jean is born
  • 1916 Begins to make lithographs. Summers in Camden, Maine.
  • 1917 Spends summer in the artist colony of Carmel, CA
  • 1918-19 Spends summer at Middletown, RI
  • 1919 Teaches at the Art Institute of Chicago
  • 1920 Rents a house in Woodstock, NY
  • 1921 Buys a home and studio in Woodstock
  • 1925 Dies in New York City from a ruptured appendix
  • IV. COLLECTIONS

  • Amon Carter Museum, TX
  • Brooklyn Museum of Art, NY
  • Butler Institute of American Art, OH
  • Cleveland Museum of Art, OH
  • Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
  • Detroit Institute of Arts, MI
  • Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, CA
  • Harvard University Art Museums Database, MA
  • Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.
  • Hunter Museum of American Art, TN
  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA
  • Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, MA
  • Milwaukee Art Museum, WI
  • Minneapolis Institute of Arts, MI
  • Monhegan Museum, ME
  • Montclair Art Museum, NJ
  • Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
  • Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX
  • Museum of Modern Art, NY
  • Museum of the Rhode Island School of Design, RI
  • National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
  • Oklahoma City Art Museum, OK
  • Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, PA
  • Portland Museum of Art, ME
  • San Diego Museum of Art, CA
  • Santa Barbara Museum of Art, CA
  • Sheldon Art Gallery, Lincoln, NE
  • Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
  • Springfield Museum of Art, OH
  • Swope Art Museum, IN
  • The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.
  • Toledo Museum of Art, OH
  • U.S. Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
  • Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
  • Williams College Museum of Art, MA
  • Worcester Art Museum, MA
  • Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT
  • V. EXHIBITIONS

  • 1907-18 National Academy of Design, NY
  • 1907-25 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, PA
  • 1910-23, 1957 Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C.
  • 1912, 1918 Newport Art Association
  • 1913 Armory Show, NY
  • 1913, 1914, 1922 Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, PA
  • 1915 Panama Pacific Exhibition, San Francisco, CA
  • 1916, 1921 Art Institute of Chicago, IL
  • 1922 National Arts Club
  • 1925 Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
  • 1991 Allison Gallery, NY
  • 1992 Society of Independent Artists (traveling exhibition: Whitney Museum of American Art, Amon Carter Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art
  • 1992 Susan Sheehan Gallery, NY
  • 1997 Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, FL
  • 1999 Adelson Galleries, Inc., NY
  • 1999 San DIego Museum of Art, CA
  • 2003 Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, NY
  • VI. MEMBERSHIPS

  • Association of American Painters and Sculptors
  • Boston Art Club
  • League of American Artists
  • Los Angeles Modern Art Society
  • National Academy of Design
  • National Arts Club
  • National Institute of Arts and Letters
  • New Society of Artists
  • Society of Illustrators
  • Society of Independent Artists
  • Woodstock Art Association
  • Woodstock Art Colony
  • VII. AWARDS

  • 1908, 1913, 1914, 1916 Medal, National Academy of Design, NY
  • 1913 Prize, Carnegie Institute, PA
  • 1914 Medal, Carnegie Institute, PA
  • 1915 Gold, Pan-Pacific Exposition, San Francisco, CA
  • 1916, Medal Prize, Art Institute of Chicago, IL
  • 1917 Medal, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, PA
  • 1918 Prize, Newport Art Association
  • 1921 Medal Prize, Art Institute of Chicago, IL
  • 1921 Beck Gold Medal, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art
  • 1922 Prize, National Arts Club
  • 1922 Prize, Carnegie Institute, PA
  • 1923 Medal, Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C.
  • VIII. Bibliography

    1. 1. Boswell, Jr., Peyton. George Bellows. New York: Crown Publishers, 1942.
    2. 2. Bellows, Emma S. The Paintings of George Bellows. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1929.
    3. 3. Doezema, Marianne. George Bellows and Urban America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.
    4. 4. Morgan, Charles. George Bellows: Painter of America. New York: Reynal and Company, 1965.
    5. 5. Oates, Joyce Carol. George Bellows: American Artist. Hopewell, NJ: The Ecco Press, 1995.
    6. 6. Young, Mahonri Sharp. The Paintings of George Bellows. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1973.

    IX. WORKS FOR SALE BY THIS ARTIST