Bellows Show Moves Past Cliches

Exhibition probes facets of George Bellows's work with intelligent insight

AT 16, American painter George Bellows (1882-1925) left Ohio State University and ventured to New York to become an artist. The year was 1904. In the nearly three decades before Bellows's untimely death at age 43, he made a prodigious number of paintings, taught at the Art Student's League, was appointed to the National Academy of Design, and came to be numbered among America's highly respected realists.

"The Paintings of George Bellows" is an in-depth look at Bellows's career. The show stands out for its range and its commitment to challenging popular cliches with hard-boiled scholarship and exceptional art. The presentation is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York through Aug. 30.

Biographers tell us Bellows was full of life and vigor - an active, volatile spirit with an innate social consciousness that matched the pulse of America in the early 1900s. The works in this show confirm a picture of the artist as a man of enormous and quickly changing energies who painted in several quite distinct styles and perfected at least four favored subjects.

We remember Bellows most for paintings like "Dempsey and Firpo" (1924) - canvases of boxers coiled in final-round struggles and smudged in crimson blood. But he was also an accomplished portrait artist, producing quaint landscapes like "My House, Woodstock" (1924), poetic scenes of the city under snow, and grand views of the New England coastline.

From the beginning, Bellows came to art as a journalistic illustrator, and even at the height of his career as a painter he continued to illustrate. He was drawn to recording what he saw. "I paint New York because I live in it and because the most essential thing for me is to paint the life about me," Bellows said.

What Bellows saw and captured in New York at the turn of the century included dock workers, freighters on the Hudson, crowded tenements, and Staten Island teeming with throngs from every continent looking for a new start. Bellows stands apart in his ability to render Americans fisting their way into history.

The operative cliche when discussing the art of George Bellows has been to define him in terms of his artistic circle - New York's Ashcan School of the early 1900s. The Ashcan School revolved around a group of painters following the philosophical and formal teachings of artist Robert Henri. The style prided itself on nonacademic, non-prettified urban subjects caught in a snapshot fashion and modeled from freely, thickly applied paint often built to a high and grainy texture with a palette knife. The Ashc an School was also associated with socialist politics.

There is no doubt that Bellows's attraction to the dramatic freedom and social philosophy of the Ashcan School comes through the darkish colors and subjects of early works like "Forty Two Kids" (1907), and "Cliff Dwellers" (1913), depicting poor boys bathing at local watering holes or crowded onto the summer streets of the lower East Side.

And we see the Ashcan influence in the almost disturbing but remarkable portrait of "Frankie the Organ Boy," with his bulbous nose and vacant eyes. Though Bellows never traveled to Europe, he was well-versed in art history, and "Frankie" draws on the whole tradition of unedited realism from Velazquez to Henri.

Alongside "Frankie" there are portraits like "Anne in White (1920), or "Katherine Rosen" (1921) with their clear resonant palette and the formal elegance of official academic portraiture.

The show's catalog puts to rest the popular misconception that Bellows and his circle produced their art through free-form, slapdash techniques. By 1909, Henri and Bellows were using complicated conceptual systems of canvas organization and color harmonizing proposed by the paint manufacturer Hardesty Maratta. Maratta's system of color selection involved a stringent system of scaling and grouping colors such that only certain hues could be used or mixed with others.

Landscapes done around 1908 with the Maratta system, such as the beautiful "Palisades," have brighter, clearer colors and a grand, poetic approach to their subject that is closer to the romantic than the socialist.

Though we think of him as a city painter, this show seems to tell us that Bellows was a romantic and idealist at heart. He comes to us as an artist who believed in the old romantic qualities of beauty and truth. He was simply astute enough to turn a wry brush when confronted with their absence (as in the racial statement, "Both Members of This Club"), and humane enough to find those qualities equally in a pristine wood and a grimy city street.

At the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio from Oct. 11, 1992 to Jan. 3, 1993; the Amon Carter Museum in Texas from Feb. 20 to May 9, 1993.

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