A few days ago I featured the art of Samuel Luke Fildes who in his early artistic days was a Social Realist painter. His paintings and illustrations for The Graphic magazine dwelled on the plight of the poor in his native England and what they had to endure. Today I am featuring an American artist of around the same era who wanted to paint pictures of real life in New York City. He is George Wesley Bellows, the American realist painter.
George Bellows was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1882 and after passing through the various school years arrived at Ohio State University at the age of nineteen. It was here that his sports prowess came to the fore and at one time it was thought that he may take up baseball professionally. During his time at the university he funded himself by working as a commercial illustrator. However Bellows had one aim in life and that was to become an artist, so much so, that he quit the university just before he was due to graduate and moved to New York to study art.
He enrolled in the New York School of Art and became a student of Robert Henri. It was through Henri that Bellows came into contact with a group of artists known as The Eight and later became paert of The Ashcan School. The Eight was a group of artists whose fame derives from, and for what they will always be remembered for, their one and only joint exhibition in 1908 at the Macbeth Gallery in New York. The exhibition was a sensation and it is now looked upon as one of the most important events in the development of twentieth-century American art
The Aschcan School was a loose collection of realist painters associated with Robert Henri. The term “Ashcan” was first used by Art Young the American socialist writer and cartoonist when he was writing about this art movement. They were however unified with their desire to be truthful with their art and depict the city of New York and its working-class neighbourhoods as it was and not just an idealised and formal portrayal of these suburbs. They wanted us to see life in the raw. The scenes of the city painted by Bellows highlighted the crudity and disorder of life amongst the working class. This was American Realism, and he and his fellow Ashcan artists believed that their art should be similar to journalism showing the city as it was, “warts and all”. In a way this group, including Bellows was determined to rebel against American Impressionism which was so popular at the time. Their art did not focus on light but in general their art was darker in tone and brought the seamier side of life to the fore with subjects such as prostitution, drunks and overcrowded tenements cluttered with lines of washing. Bellows also painted pictures of boxing matches which with their dark and atmospheric backgrounds brought out the bloody savagery of the sport. In some of their works they depicted the poor and their struggle with everyday life. These were the equivalent to the English Social Realism genre of art of which Samuel Luke Fildes was a leading figure.
The painting of George Bellows I am featuring today is not one of his Social Realism paintings. My featured painting of George Bellows is entitled Blue Snow, The Battery which he completed in 1910. The setting for the painting is Battery Park which lies adjacent to the financial district of the city. There is a breathtaking beauty about this work of art. His imaginative and powerful use of blue energizes the scene of the southern tip of Manhattan. Bellows painted a number of scenes with New York City under snowfall and as with my featured painting it is amazing how he has developed a strong sense of light and visual texture contrasting the white and blue of the snow and the dark grimy outline of the old buildings. It is a beautiful strong composition which is normally housed at the Columbus Museum of Art.
Bellows went on to teach at the Art Institute of Chicago but spent half the year at the home he built in Woodstock, New York. He illustrated novels including a number for H G Wells. In 1925, at the young age of 42 he died of peritonitis after failing to tend to a ruptured appendix.
I hope to see some of his art when I visit the National Gallery in London tomorrow where thay have a small exhibition of works by George Bellows and the Ashcan painters, entitled An American Experiment.