by Helen A. Harrison
George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925) was one of the most acclaimed American artists of his generation, yet there has not been a major retrospective of his work since 1966. Happily that situation has been remedied by the National Gallery of Art, which organized the outstanding show on view through February 18 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, where Bellows was known to haunt the galleries during his student days and where his memorial show was held in 1925. For the first time in decades we can see the full range of Bellows’ stellar career, which was cut short by his untimely death from peritonitis when he was 42.
Renowned as a painter of urban life, especially the gritty tenements, teeming streets and seedy prize-fighting clubs of New York City, the Columbus, Ohio native had Eastern Long Island roots. His father’s people came from Good Ground (Hampton Bays), and a relative, Daniel Bellows, owned a cooperage on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor in the 1840s. His mother was the daughter and granddaughter of Sag Harbor whaling captains, and the family often summered at Captain Davis’ house on Amity Street, where young George’s Aunt Fannie encouraged his artistic endeavors. Her faith was well placed.
In 1910 Bellows and his bride honeymooned in Montauk, where he sketched the lonely dwelling on the bluff in “Shore House.” The canvas was painted the following year, when he became one of the youngest artists in the Met’s collection. He was only 29 when the museum acquired his 1908 oil, “Up the Hudson,” which unaccountably is not in the exhibition. The show does include several other views of the Hudson River and Palisades, as well as scenes of strollers in Central Park and a fascinating series documenting the construction of Penn Station. Also on display are the famous oils and drawings of urchins swimming in the East River, brawling on the Lower East Side and generally living up to the popular image of urban riffraff. But while Bellows’ character studies sometimes cloy into stereotypes they are always vibrant, and handled with the skilful draftsmanship and painterly panache that earned him early election to the National Academy — at age 27, the youngest associate in its history.
Bellows was adept at traditional portraiture and landscape painting, but he is most celebrated as a member of the so-called Ashcan School — whose subjects were dismissed as vulgar, even borderline immoral, by genteel critics — yet somehow he managed to move with ease in respectable social circles. He contributed Daumier-like drawings to the socialist magazine The Masses, and produced a gruesome series of prints (in the spirit of Goya) based on accounts of German atrocities during World War I, while painting tender portraits of his wife and daughters in their comfortably bourgeois surroundings. He was on the planning committee for the 1913 Armory Show, a modernist extravaganza that challenged everything the Academy held dear, at the same time producing Winslow Homer-inspired studies of the rugged Maine coast. In short, Bellows was a walking contradiction, and apparently he knew it. He thought an artist should “Be deliberate. Be spontaneous. Be thoughtful and painstaking. Be abandoned and impulsive.”
For many Bellows fans, the paintings of boxers are his signature works, and three of them are here: “Club Night,” “Stag at Sharkey’s,” and “Dempsey and Firpo,” his last major oil, as well as related works on paper. But where is the National Gallery’s “Both Members of This Club,” a masterpiece of what might be termed realist action painting? Its slashing brushwork is perfectly suited to the scene of brutal combat between a white fighter and an African American. Why the National Gallery didn’t send it to New York is as curious at the Met’s failure to show “Up the Hudson.” In any case, it’s interesting to compare the dynamism of the early prize-fighting scenes to “Dempsey and Firpo,” with its rather wooden treatment of the boxers’ figures. There’s actually a film of this legendary fight on YouTube, where you can watch Luis Firpo, known as the “Bull of the Pampas,” send Jack Dempsey through the ropes in Round 1. (Dempsey climbed back into the ring and won the bout.) Bellows was there at ringside, and he worked a self-portrait into the painting. Maybe a sharp-eyed viewer can spot him in the film.