George Bellows, his wife and children

Emma at the Piano by George Bellows (1914)
Emma at the Piano by George Bellows (1914)

George Bellow’s depiction of his wife sitting at the piano entitled Emma at the Piano was completed in 1914.  It is a beautiful portrayal of his wife, dressed in a rich blue coloured coat which along with the dark background adds to our awareness of the sense of intimacy of the scene.  The depiction captures the moment when Emma has stopped playing and turns her gaze towards her husband as he paints her image.  The painting belongs to the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk.

Just recently I have looked at paintings done by Rubens and Rembrandt of their wives.  Thinking about it as a non-artist, I suppose there is logic behind an artist portraying his or her partner.  In most cases the portrait done by the artist would be a labour of love and pride.  I am returning to this theme in My Daily Art Display today when I look at the portraits George Bellows did of his wife Emma and their children.

George Wesley Bellows was an only child, born in Columbus, Ohio on August 12th 1882 to Anna and George Bellows.  He was brought up in a conservative Methodist household with his mother’s sister Elinor, whom he called Aunt Fanny, and who would leave the family home to get married when George was eight years of age.    Also living at home was his eighteen year old half-sister Laura, from his father’s first marriage.  Laura would also leave to get married, when George was two years of age.  This left him as the only child of the household.  At the age of fifteen he attended the Central High School in Columbus where he excelled at sport.  In the summer of 1900 George worked as an illustrator at the local Columbus Dispatch newspaper.  The following fall, he enrols at Ohio State University where he studied English.  It was here that his English professor, Joseph Taylor got him interested in the arts.  Throughout his time at the university he continued his love of sport, playing both basketball and baseball.   He regularly contributed drawings to the college publications and in his second year began to take art classes.  In 1903 he receives a cash prize for his still life painting which was on display at the Ohio State Fair.  The following year, 1904 was his graduation year but George failed to sit his final exams and left the university in the spring.  During that summer he gains employment as a sports writer at two local newspapers, the Ohio State Journal and the Columbus Dispatch and again that year wins himself more money from his works of art which were displayed at that year’s Ohio State Fair.  Although his mother who was devoutly religious and had always wanted George to become a minister in the church, he told his father that he wanted to go to New York, study art at the New York School of Art and become a professional artist.  He even turned down the opportunity to become a professional baseball player.  His father was supportive and gave him a $50 monthly allowance.

Emma in a Purple Dress by George Bellows (1919)
Emma in a Purple Dress by George Bellows (1919)

Emma in the Purple Dress was completed by Bellows in 1919 and can be found at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

George Belows arrived in New York in September 1904 and took lodgings at the YMCA.   He enrolled at the New York School of Art, which had originally been known as the Chase School of Art, so named after its director and founder was William Merritt Chase, the American Impressionist painter.   It was at this establishment he first met his charismatic art tutor and one of the most influential teachers of the time, the painter, Robert Henri.  Henri would become the leading figure of the artistic group known as The Eight and a prominent member of the Ashcan School of American Realist painters.  It was Henri that roused his students to move away from the genteel scenes which were common in art and favoured by the establishment, such as the National Academy of Design.  Henri urged them to look towards depicting more rugged and harsh cityscapes in their paintings.  It was a plea for them to look towards modernity and realism in their art.  Bellows took up the challenge and many of his works at the time depicted vast public transportation projects such as the building of the Pennsylvania Railroad Station and the Queensboro Bridge which spans the East River in New York.

However the most important person George Bellows met when he arrived at the art school was a fellow student, Emma Louise Story.  Emma was two years younger than George and was the daughter of William Edward Story, a successful New Jersey linen and lace merchant, and Catherine Elizabeth Story (née Anderson).  George and Emma soon became great friends and that Christmas George spent Christmas in the Story household in Upper Montclair, New Jersey.  George Bellows continued to love playing sport and in the summer of 1905 played semi-professional baseball in Brooklyn.

George Wesley Bellows and Emma Louise Story married on September 23rd 1910 at St George’s Episcopal Church in the Bronx.  This close and loving partnership brought Bellows a renewed interest in portraiture, especially family portraiture and this love would remain with him for the rest of his life.  Bellows was very much in love with his wife and in a letter to her, he wrote:

“…Can I tell you that your heart is in me and your portrait is in all my work?   What can a man say to a woman who absorbs his whole life?…”

Anne in White by George Bellows (1920)
Anne in White by George Bellows (1920)

His love for his wife was equalled by his love for his children.  George and Emma had two daughters, Anne and Jean.  Anne was born on September 8th 1911 and Jean was born on April 23rd 1915.  For an artist who gave the world paintings depicting the harshness of city life, the brutality of the boxing ring and the atrocities of war, he could also depict a charming tenderness in his portraiture, especially those featuring his children as he witnessed their journey through youth.  One such work was completed in 1920 entitled Anne in White, which featured his eight year old daughter Anne, and is housed in the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.  This painting measuring 134cms x 109cms has the young girl sitting in a small rocking chair.  Her left hand falls to her side clutching the brim of her dark blue hat with its long ribbon trailing out before her.  Her young face is framed by the thick locks of her hair.  Her posture is one of grace and elegance.  Her eyes have the darkness which Bellows frequently used in his portraiture.  Bellows had delightfully and skilfully captured his young daughter’s look of innocence.   In her right hand she holds a highly-coloured fan on her lap.  Her position in the painting is midway between a background consisting of a heavy curtain on the left and a window through which we observe a verdant spectacle of nature on the right.  It is a juxtaposition of domesticity as denoted by the drapery and liberty offered by the outside world.

Elinor, Jean and Anna by George Bellows  (1920)
Elinor, Jean and Anna by George Bellows (1920)

In that same year, 1920, Bellows completed another portrait which featured his daughter Anna.  It was group family portrait entitled Elinor, Jean and Anna.   This work by Bellows is now considered to be one of the most accomplished group portraits in modern art.  In Charles Hill Morgan’s 1965 book George Bellows, Painter of America,  he quotes art critics as saying:

“…[Bellows] has lifted portraiture out of the status of a mere profession, and conferred upon it a genuinely aesthetic distinction…”

At the centre of the group sits the petite figure of his eight year old daughter, Anna in her white dress with its starkly contrasting wide black sash wrapped tightly around her waist.  In front of her, open on her lap, is an art book.  On either side of her, and in total contrast to this diminutive figure of his daughter, sits monumental figures dressed in black.  These two elderly ladies are attired in widows’ garb.  On the left is Elinor, Bellows’ Aunt Fanny, who was at the time was in her early eighties.   She had lived with Bellows and his parents when he was young and had fostered in him an interest in art.  Bellows always remembered those early years living with Elinor.   Her left hand lies palm-upwards , laid out directing us to look at the young girl and the art book with its still-life picture of a flower.   It is as if Elinor is inviting us to join the group or it could be that Bellows wanted there to be a connection in the painting between Elinor and the art book to remind himself that it was Elinor who had first nurtured in him his love for art.    Bellows always remembered with great fondness his early days living at home with Elinor.  In a letter to his cousin, Laura Daggett, he wrote:

“…Aunt Fanny will always remain to me a beautiful and important vision of my babyhood.  It gives me a great sensation to have her bring to me a drawing which I had made as a little kid…”

On the right of the portrait is Anna, George Bellows’ mother, who was in her late seventies.  The work is in some ways a connection between the old and young of Bellows generation with the artist being the conduit between the two generations.

Lady Jean by George Bellows (1924)
Lady Jean by George Bellows (1924)

My final offering is Bellows’ portrait of his younger daughter, Jean which he completed in 1924 entitled Lady Jean, and which is now housed in the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven.   This was to be Bellows’ last major portrait of a family member.  In the work we see his nine year old daughter Jean dressed in a nineteenth century Southern costume with its long frilled skirt that forms a slight train.  The dress had been given to her mother, who used to lend it to her children when they wanted to dress up.   The neckline and cuffs of the old-fashioned pale-blue dress are enhanced by ribbons.  On her head Jean wears a  black hat with its veil retracted.  Her right hand is covered with a lace mitt, whilst the other mitt dangles from her left hand which also clutches a small purse.  Jean’s love of dressing up and performing before her parents led her to eventually become an actress, appearing on Broadway opposite such stars as the great Helen Hayes.

George Bellows was suddenly taken ill at his studio in New York on January 2nd 1925.  He was rushed to hospital where it was diagnosed that he was suffering from a ruptured appendix and he was immediately operated on.  Sadly on January 8th he died of peritonitis, aged forty-two.   It was said that he died at the height of his fame and prowess as a painter but this, in some ways, is demeaning and suggests he had reached his best but who is to know to what artistic heights he would have risen to had he lived longer.  I recently returned for a second visit to an exhibition of his work at London’s Royal Academy and I was taken by his words which were printed in large letters on the wall at the exit.  They came from motivational words he had once offered his students just a few years before his death.  To them he said:

Try it every possible way.

Be deliberate.  Be spontaneous.

Be thoughtful and painstaking.

Be abandoned and Impulsive intellectual and inspired, calm and temperamental.

Learn your own Possibilities

The War Series by George Bellows

Massacre at Dinant by George Bellows (1918)
Massacre at Dinant by George Bellows (1918)

Another exhibition I recently attended whilst in London was one which showcased some of the works by the influential American realist painter, George Bellows.  To me, before I saw this collection of his work, the art of George Bellows was all about his wonderful boxing match scenes and the haunting look at the Pennsylvania Station excavation in New York so I was delightfully surprised by the amazing variety of his works, which were on view.  Today I want to look at a series of paintings and lithographs he completed in 1918, which highlighted German atrocities in the First World War.   Some of these works were on display at the Royal Academy exhibition.  The paintings, when they were first exhibited, shocked the people who saw them and the series caused some controversy, which I will talk about later.

The story behind his War Series paintings was of the German invasion of Belgium during the First World War and depicted some of the atrocities carried out by the invading German troops.  The Belgian town of Dinant, which lies on the Meuse River, was overrun by the German Third Army, led by Lieutenant General Baron Max Klemens von Hausen on August 23rd 1914.  Dinant fell to the German invaders but according to German reports some of the German soldiers, whilst repairing a bridge in the town, were fired upon by locals.  A swift and bloody retribution followed.  The German troops rounded up 612 local residents in the main town square.  This group consisted of men women and children.  In the double Pullitzer Prize Winner, Barbara Tuchman’s 1963 book The Guns of August, she wrote that among those executed that day was Felix Fivet, aged just three weeksold.  The town was then ransacked by the occupying army.

Unlike how it is nowadays, there were no television crews following the battle to send back live feeds of the war with all its brutality.  There were no newspaper pictures of the massacre of Dinant, so how did Bellows and the world hear about this horrific event?  A month after the atrocities in Dinant, the Belgian Government put out three reports on German war crimes committed during the invasion of their country.   The contents of these reports shocked all those who read them and in Britain both Parliament and the newspapers clamoured for an independent British commission to be set up to investigate the atrocities.  The British Prime Minister at the time, Herbert Asquith, bowed to public opinion and set up an inquiry.  In December 1914, James Bryce was asked to chair what was termed, the “German Outrages Inquiry Committee”, which would look into all material and take witness statements appertaining to the massacre of Belgium citizens and to the complicity of the German officers into the behaviour of their troops during the summary executions of civilians.  James Bryce, 1st Viscount Bryce, was a British academic, historian and Liberal politician and had been, from 1907 to 1913, the British Ambassador to the United States of America and was on friendly terms with the then Presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

The report of the Committee was published on May 12th 1915 and the conclusion was that atrocities had been committed by the German army in order to strike terror into the civil population which would, in turn, dishearten the Belgian troops.  The Germans believed that it would quash resistance and extinguish the very spirit of self-defence. The Commission also stated that the German report of the townsfolk firing on German troops was simply used to justify the murder of large numbers of innocent civilians.   However, there was one problem with the compiling of the Commission’s report and this was the documenting of the 1200 eye witness accounts which had been correlated by a team of English lawyers.  A large number of these were excluded as the committee were mindful that their findings had to be reliable, credible and truthful.   For that to happen, the Committee stated that many of the depositions collected had to be omitted, although they were probably true, as they believed that it was much safer not to place reliance on them.   The committee ended their report by concluding:

“…Our function is ended when we have stated what the evidence establishes, but we may be permitted to express our belief that these disclosures will not have been made in vain if they touch and rouse the conscience of mankind, and we venture to hope that as soon as the present war is over, the nations of the world in council will consider what means can be provided and sanctions devised to prevent the recurrence of such horrors as our generation is now witnessing…”

The report was translated into many languages and circulated throughout the world.   Some later historians believed that the Bryce Commission report was a piece of propaganda and that the lurid accounts of German atrocities were designed to bolster the resolve of those already fighting in the war and to encourage those countries, including the powerful USA, to end their neutrality.

America had declared its neutrality in 1914 with Woodrow Wilson making his speech to the nation on August 18th 1914.  In the speech he said:

“…I venture therefore my fellow countrymen to speak a solemn word of warning to you against that deepest, most subtle, most essential breach of neutrality which may spring out of partisanship, out of passionately taking sides.   The United States must be neutral in fact as well as in name during these days that are to try men’s souls.  We must be impartial in thought as well as action, must put a curb on our sentiments as well as upon every transaction that might be construed as a preference of one party to the struggle before another…”

The United States of America finally gave up its stance of neutrality in April 1917.

So what has this report to do with the George Bellow paintings?  The answer is that Bellows based the depictions in his paintings on the Bryce Commission report.   In 1918 Bellows created a series of works, known as his War Series, depicting German war atrocities in order to stir outrage and embolden America in World War I.   The set consisted of five large paintings, which were his largest works ever completed.   Besides these oil paintings he also completed 20 lithographs and 42 drawings about the Great War.   At the time war paintings tended to focus on the heroic victors and glory in battles won and so Bellow’s War Series was a complete turnaround and many found them offensive.

Another artist, Francisco de Goya, a century earlier, had produced works highlighting the brutality of war.  In all he completed eighty-two etchings between 1810 and 1820 but,for political reasons, they were never exhibited until 1863, some thirty-five years after Goya’s death.  They depicted not only the atrocities of the French army which had invaded Spain but the inhuman treatment men inflicted on their fellow men.  Prints of these works by Goya would have been on display at galleries in New York and it is very likely that George Bellows would have seen them.

One Can't Look by Francisco de Goya (1863)
One Can’t Look by Francisco de Goya (1863)

In Bellow’s work, Massacre at Dinant, we see the foreground is littered with the dead bodies of women and children.  In the background we see the skies darken at the moment of death.  In the centre of the painting we see the clergy with their arms stretched aloft beseeching an end to the killings.  Their pleas fall on deaf ears and they are powerless to prevent the massacre.  It is a brutal depiction and horrifies all who stand before it. Although Bellows has not depicted any German soldiers in the painting, if one looks to the far left of the work one can see their bloody bayonets and rifles appearing on the scene.   This depiction of the “approaching” rifles could be taken directly from one of Goya’s lithographs entitled One Can’t Look (No se puede mirar), in which we see the bayoneted rifles just coming into the right hand side of the etching.

The Barricade by George Bellows (1918)
The Barricade by George Bellows (1918)

Another painting from his War Series was entitled The Barricade, in which we see a line of naked human beings, arms held aloft, acting as human shields for the uniformed German soldiers, with their guns raised, who stand and crouch behind them.   As a propaganda piece it worked well evoking both pity and rage in the mind of the viewer.  The message to the American public was clear – can we stand by and let this kind of thing happen or should we join the battle and end such atrocities.

Return of the Useless by George Bellows (1918)
Return of the Useless by George Bellows (1918)

In his painting Return of the Useless, Bellows depicted Germans soldiers unloading sick and disabled labour-camp prisoners from a rust-red boxcar.   These were Belgian citizens who were being returned home as they were no longer physically fit to work for the Germans.   Box-cars were familiar sights on the American railroads but this work depicted the box-car as a transport system for German prisoners.    Look how Bellows has cleverly used the same colour, red, for the rusty box-car as he used for the flushed face of the German soldier who is venting his anger on the fallen and cowering man and the bloodied skin of some of the prisoners.  Cast your eyes towards the interior of the box car.  Here we see an elderly man supporting a young female who is on the point of collapse.  Another woman sits on the floor her arms wrapped around a child.  A young woman is stepping out of the boxcar and her arms are raised in horror as she watches the German guard bring down the butt of his rifle on to the fallen man, who pathetically looks up and begs for mercy.

The Germans Arrive by George Bellows (1918)
The Germans Arrive by George Bellows (1918)

The Germans Arrive, another painting in the series, was based on an actual account from the Bryce Commission and gruesomely illustrated  a German soldier restraining a young Belgian teenager whose hands had just been severed.   This and the other paintings in the series suffered much criticism accusing Bellows of taking liberties when capturing on canvas, the horrific scenes of war. One notable detractor was the American artist and author,  Joseph Pennell, who argued that because Bellows had never been at the battlefront and therefore had not witnessed at first hand the events he painted, he forfeited the right to paint them. Bellows responded sarcastically that he had not been aware that the great Leonardo da Vinci “had a ticket of admission to the Last Supper”.

The final painting in his War Series is entitled Murder of Edith Cavell.   Edith Cavell was head of the Training School for Nurses in occupied Brussels.

Murder of Edith Cavell by George Bellows (1918)
Murder of Edith Cavell by George Bellows (1918)

On August 5th 1915, she was arrested for assisting Belgian, British, and French soldiers to escape from the country. Two months later, she was shot by the German authorities. News of her execution spread round the world, and in October of that year, The New York Times published 41 stories and her case became a cause célèbre.   George Bellows included this incident in a series of 12 lithographs and one full scale painting for his War Series.    In 1959 the Princeton University Art Museum found and acquired Bellow’s finished, full-size drawing (53.5 x 68.5 cm.) for this print. It is interesting to note that Bellows did not complete the oil painting of the scene until after he had finished the full scale drawing and lithograph print.  The painting now belongs to the Springfield Art Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts.

The work depicts a dark and somewhat chaotic prison cell with its grates and bars covering the windows and door.   We see on the flight of stairs leading down to the room the angelic figure of Cavell, dressed in white with her hand to her breast, enacting the classic gesture of humility.  Behind her and to the left, on a landing, we can see some soldiers and a priest clutching his bible. At the foot of the stairs there are more soldiers, one of whom holds a sword.   On the floor in the foreground we see some wounded prisoners lying on the floor guarded by soldiers in the left foreground.

George Bellow’s War Series paintings and lithographs, which he completed in the summer of 1918 whilst he was residing at his home in Middletown, Rhode Island, were ambitious in nature in the beloved tradition of grand manner history works.  His intention was to stir up both the public’s outrage and sympathy.  However the credibility of the images depicted in these paintings went hand in hand with the credibility of the Bryce Commission Report and that was to be called into question after the war had ended.  Many of the reports of German atrocities were then looked upon as merely Allied propaganda, simply designed to bolster the resolve of those Allied nations which were participating in the war and to encourage those nations to commit to the war effort , which up until then, had preferred to remain neutral,   Later, many Americans believed that their country had been tricked and manipulated into joining the conflict and unfortunately for George Bellows he and his War Series were regarded as part of this deception.  In 1925, the American art critic and historian, Virgil Barker commented on the series saying:

“…[they were] ill-judged in their appeal to the passion of hatred as anything produced in America’s most hysterical war years…”

However I will close with a more favourable comment on the War Series.  The art critic G.D.Cotton saw the initial exhibition and wrote about the works in the American Art News in September 1918.  He commented:

“…[the works] are brutal, full of horror, but reeking with truth, which adds to their poignancy.   After one has recovered from the shock of the subject themselves one sees that the pictures are full of strange beauty, conceived in bigness of vision that is rare and inspiring.  The whole exhibition is one to stiffen the spines of the enlisted men who are here and make them realize what they face ‘Over There’…

I can sincerely recommend you go and see the George Bellows exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London which runs until June 9th 2013.  See what you make of these War Series paintings and lithographs and at the same time, take in many of Bellow’s other beautiful works.