George Bellows (1882–1925) was regarded as one of America's greatest artists when he died, at the age of 42, from a ruptured appendix. His early fame rested on his powerful depictions of boxing matches and gritty scenes of New York City's tenement life, but he also painted cityscapes, seascapes, war scenes, and portraits, and made illustrations and lithographs that addressed many of the social, political, and cultural issues of the day. Opening November 15 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and featuring some 120 works from his extensive oeuvre, the landmark loan exhibition George Bellows is the first comprehensive retrospective of the artist's career since 1966. It invites the viewer to experience the dynamic and challenging decades of the early 20th century through the eyes of a brilliant observer. Bellows had close ties to the Metropolitan Museum. He was inspired by paintings in its collection, to which one of his own was added in 1911--when he was only 29 years old--and his first retrospective was the Met's 1925 memorial exhibition.
The exhibition is made possible by The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation.
The exhibition was organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, in association with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Royal Academy of Arts, London.
Born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, George Bellows attended Ohio State University, where his athletic talents suggested that he might become a professional baseball player and his illustrations for the student yearbook hinted at an artistic calling. In 1904, before graduating, he moved to New York City to study art with Robert Henri, one of America's most influential teachers in the period. Bellows would become the leading young member of the Ashcan School artists, all of whom Henri inspired. The Ashcan artists aimed to chronicle the realities of daily life, and Bellows was the boldest and most versatile among them in his choice of subjects, palettes, and techniques. Bellows never traveled abroad, but learned the lessons of European masters-such as El Greco, Francisco de Goya, Édouard Manet, and others who nourished Ashcan realism-by studying their works in museums, including the Metropolitan.
When, in 1911, the Metropolitan acquired his canvas Up the Hudson (1908) as its first Ashcan painting, Bellows became one of the youngest artists to be represented in the Museum's collection. His candid portrayals of New York City, Maine's rugged coast, boxers in the ring, the atrocities of World War I, friends and family members, and other distinctive themes are among the triumphs of early 20th-century art.
The exhibition will be organized thematically, within a chronological framework:
New York, 1905–1908; Boxers and Portraits, 1907–1909; Penn Station and the Hudson River, 1907–1909; Work and Leisure, 1910–16; The Sea, 1911–17; Bellows's Process, 1912–16; The War, 1918; Bellows's Process, 1916–23; Family and Friends, 1914–19; and Late Works,
Nearly a third of the exhibition is devoted to scenes of New York City. After painting several scenes of tenement kids enjoying themselves along the banks of Manhattan's East River, Bellows turned to a popular destination for diverse crowds seeking relief from the summer's heat on their day off from work. His Beach at Coney Island (1908, private collection) signals the relaxEd Moral codes associated with this locale on Brooklyn's south shore. One leading critic described Bellows's teeming view as "a distinctly vulgar scene," not least because of the amorous couple shown embracing in the foreground.
New York (1911, National Gallery of Art), one of Bellows's few depictions of the heart of the city rather than its edges, captures the tumult of a busy intersection in winter. Looming skyscrapers obliterate all but a tiny patch of sky. Pedestrians of every social class scurry along the sidewalks. Horse-drawn carriages, delivery carts, and trolleys pack the streets. Men with shovels work to remove any trace of the recently fallen snow.
Bellows maintained a lifelong interest in sports, and his many depictions of boxers in the ring are his most familiar and iconic works. Stag at Sharkey's (1909, Cleveland Museum of Art) depicts a prize fight at Tom Sharkey's Athletic Club, a popular bar that was located directly across Broadway from Bellows's studio at 66th Street. Because public prizefighting was illegal in New York at the time, club "members" could buy their way in each evening for a few dollars. The artist's low vantage point places the viewer almost at ringside.
The Hudson River and adjacent Riverside Park often inspired Bellows. For Rain on the River (1908, Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design), the artist positioned himself on a rocky overlook and showed the river below shrouded in mist. A pedestrian navigates a flooded footpath, and smoke billows around a train that is pulling into a shed. Bellows's contemporaries, who were accustomed to the light and sunny urban views favored by the American Impressionists, would have been startled by this gritty urban subject.