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George Bellows: New York knock-out

Published 27 February 2013

New York at the start of the 20th century was a hotbed of explosive urbanisation. The RA’s exhibition of Bellow’s work explores the idea of painting from raw experience.

  • From the Spring 2013 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    George Bellows arrived in New York in 1904, at a propitious moment in the city’s history. Foreign visitors, as well as returning natives, noticed a new atmosphere. For the novelist H.G. Wells, it possessed “a blindly furious energy of growth” combined with “the sense of soulless gigantic forces, that took no heed of men”. The historian Henry Adams, returning from abroad, pushed that perception further: “The outline of the city became frantic in its effort to explain something that defied meaning. Power seemed to have outgrown its servitude and to have asserted its freedom. The cylinder had exploded, and thrown great masses of stone and steel against the sky. The city had the air and movement of hysteria, and the citizens were crying, in every accent of anger and alarm, that the new forces must at any cost be brought under control.” But not everyone was crying. Many Americans found the new urban energies exciting as well as disturbing. They wanted to inhale the regenerative atmosphere without losing their grip on familiar values.

  • George Bellows, New York

    George Bellows, New York, 1911.

    Oil on canvas. 152.4 x 106.7 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon. Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington. Photograph Greg Williams. Exhibition organised by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, in association with the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

  • President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) embodied that aspiration. He insisted that only a new, demanding ideal of personal character, which he called “the strenuous life”, could enable American citizens to face the challenges posed by the “soulless gigantic forces” of centralising capital and advancing technology. And since the citizenry – or at least the electorate – was exclusively male and mainly white, the strenuous life became an agenda for revitalising white masculinity. Revitalisation took many forms, vicarious as well as direct – an enthusiasm for body-building among the desk-bound middle class, a taste for violence in literature, a fascination with the lives of the urban poor. All involved the belief that one could achieve regeneration through (actual or imagined) contact with intense physical experience.

    The painterly version of this project took hold at the New York School of Art, where the charismatic artist Robert Henri “believed that he was creating a class of men,” as his student Guy Pène du Bois recalled. “The student of art must be a man first,” Henri believed, “with a good strong conscience and the courage to live up to it. Art could come later… The first prerequisite of a student… was that he be a man and by that was meant that he have guts. Without the attributes of a fighter, he could expect little or no success with an uninterested American public… Henri did not expect the artist to be a normal man, of which there are always too many. He expected him to be a real man, of which there are always too few. Art and manhood was thus compounded into one – an incredibly healthy unity for that time.” Henri could hardly have found a more willing student than George Bellows, the young man from the provinces who was eager to merge art and manhood into a “healthy unity”.

    Bellows grew up in Columbus, Ohio, “surrounded by Methodists and Republicans,” as he later wrote. Rejected by a high school fraternity that all his friends had joined, young George was determined to overcome unpopularity by pursuing physical prowess, which he did at the Columbus YMCA. Early on he was identified as an “artist-type” – a designation that won him some deference from his teachers but that also carried an aura of effeminacy among the other boys. Taunted as a sissy, he faced “a continual need for self-defence”, he recalled. Enrolling at Ohio State University, he managed to combine his artistic ambitions with masculine achievement, playing basketball and baseball while he cranked out illustrations of Gibson Girls (the curvy idealized images of feminine beauty of the early 1900s) and fraternity boys for the college yearbook. Despite his conformity to campus convention, he remained a lonely young man. After his junior year, he headed for New York, to find a place where he could reconcile artistic sensibility and the activist demands of mainstream masculinity.

  • George Bellows, Men of the Docks

    George Bellows, Men of the Docks, 1912.

    Oil on canvas. 161.3 x 114.3 cm. Randolph College, Founded as Randoph-Macon Woman's College in 1891, Lynchburg. Exhibition organised by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, in association with the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

  • Henri’s studio turned out to be that place. He rejected the genteel academicism of the National Academy of Design, urging his students to get out into the streets and immerse themselves in the cauldron of mechanical and human energies that was turn-of-the-century New York. He also constantly prodded them to work quickly and spontaneously. It was, one of the students recalled, an “emotional scheme of punch and jump” which fitted Bellows “like a boxer’s glove.” Bellows believed that “things happened only for an instant,” as he told a childhood friend, so he knew he had to work fast. And he did, completing some canvases in six hours. The surface textures were as rough as the subject matter; neither conformed to academic standards, as Men of the Docks (1912) and The Big Dory (1913) attest. But public tastes were changing; critics were revising their views to conform to a cultural climate characterised by triumphalist nationalism and aggressive masculinity. In contrast to what they saw as the effete and decadent Europeans, American artists could be celebrated for their strength and virility.

    That is what began to happen to a number of Henri’s students, including George Luks, William Glackens, John Sloan, and above all George Bellows. In April 1907, when the New York School held an exhibition of its artists’ work, a critic in the New York Telegraph praised “the influence of the virile personality of Robert Henri” on his students – especially Bellows, “the strongest of the lot.” Careful gentility was out, crude energy was in. The New York Sun singled out Bellows’ Pennsylvania Station Excavation (1909) as a striking example of the new sensibility: “Here is a slice of New York cleanly observed, cleanly transcribed. It is not pretty. Nor is the tunnel at full blast very alluring. When you paint a crab-apple don’t paint us a luscious peach (but the idealists always clamour for the pretty peach).” This was the duality that would underwrite Bellows’ early success: his scumbled surfaces, thick with impasto, epitomised rough, raw reality, and to hell with ‘the idealists’ and their evasions. As for the subject, one could hardly ask for a better illustration of the energies convulsing the city: the giant hole that would contain the foundation for an enormous railroad station. This was New York on the brink of becoming the Empire City.

  • George Bellows, Men of the Docks

    George Bellows, Men of the Docks, 1912.

    Oil on canvas. 161.3 x 114.3 cm. Randolph College, Founded as Randoph-Macon Woman's College in 1891, Lynchburg. Exhibition organised by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, in association with the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

  • But Bellows sought out more palpable and immediate energies as well, as he began to haunt the seedy boxing clubs that attracted a working class clientele as well as a sizeable scattering of gentlemen who went slumming. This experience produced his most famous paintings, which became the most compelling visual embodiments of the strenuous life. Of Stag at Sharkey’s (1909) the critic James Gibbons Huneker wrote: “It is not pleasing this, or edifying, but for the artists and the amateur the play of muscles and the various attitudes and gestures are absolutely exciting.” The background to Both Members of This Club (1909) was a little more complex. It was originally entitled A Nigger and a White Man, and Bellows painted it during the height of the hysteria over Jack Johnson – the first black heavyweight champion who provoked the almost desperate search for a white champion who could redeem the honour of his race. The drive to revitalise masculinity drew strength from racial, as well as sexual, obsessions.

    Bellows’ own quest for unmediated experience led him, as it led other upper-class men, into the streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where the immigrant masses swarmed. “There is nothing more exhilarating than to turn yourself loose among the people,” the journalist and reformer Hutchins Hapgood wrote, adding that one might take particular pleasure in contemplating “anybody whose face shows that he has been subjected good and hard to what Henry James calls ‘the irregular rhythms of life.’” But not everyone could take pure aesthetic pleasure in the contemplation of poverty. What led artists into the slums was a matter of some debate. The socialist John Spargo praised Henri’s student Luks for “finding artistic inspiration in the streets of the American city, where great vibrant passions… seethe between mansion and hovel.” Bellows’ own inspiration lay somewhere between the earnestness of Spargo and the detachment of Hapgood. The New York Times hailed the tenement scenes and characters painted by Bellows and Glackens: “They err, perhaps, on the side of brutal frankness in their description of children in our parks and public squares, but it is indubitably life, and that is the main thing… Ugliness has a tonic quality in their hands, because it is vigorous, not anaemic or debased.” Bellows was not an ideologue, but he was sympathetically engaged with his working class subjects, as his arresting portraits such as Frankie, the Organ Boy, and Little Girl in White, Queenie Burnett, both painted in 1907, suggest.

  • George Bellows, North River

    George Bellows, North River, 1908.

    Oil on canvas. 109.2 x 83.5. Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Joseph E. Temple Fund. Exhibition organised by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, in association with the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

  • Whether his pictures of tenement dwellers en masse reveal the same sympathy is an open question. Most contemporary observers thought he was celebrating the “very joy of pure existence”, which he found in the most unlikely places. Though he worked for a while for the radical magazine The Masses, he was always more engaged with art than propaganda, with capturing the rude vitality that fascinated his contemporaries and that pervaded the city where he lived. A young provincial cut loose in the young Empire City, he found beauty in what academicians had previously found ugly: slum kids cavorting in a polluted river, boxers pummelling each other before a bloodthirsty crowd. He succeeded because the academicians were on the way out, and a new aesthetic had captured the imagination of the wider culture – a reverence for energy as an end in itself. George Bellows was in the right place at the right time.

  • Jackson Lears is Professor of History at Rutgers University, Editor of ‘Raritan Quarterly Review’ and author of ‘Rebirth of a Nation: the Making of Modern America, 1877-1920 (Harper Collins)

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