This post comes to us from Bethany Gugliemino, Curatorial Intern.
“It seems to me that an artist must be a spectator of life; a reverential, enthusiastic, emotional spectator, and then the great dramas of human nature will surge through his mind.”
Currently on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. is a retrospective exhibition of American artist George Bellows. This exhibit, which is the first complete exhibit of his career in over thirty years, will feature around 130 paintings, drawings, and lithographs. Among these works is one the NBMAA’s own masterpieces, Bellows’s The Big Dory.
George Bellows was born in Columbus, Ohio on August 12, 1882. He started drawing in high school, as well as participating in glee club, theater, baseball, and basketball. He then attended Ohio State University, where he illustrated student publications and continued to play baseball. In his junior year he received on offer to play for the Cincinnati Reds but refused, choosing instead to become an artist. He dropped out of college in 1904 at the end of his third year and moved to
New York City. Once there, he began taking classes with Robert Henri (1865-1929) at the New York School of Art, run by William Merritt Chase (1849-1916). Soon surpassing his teacher, Bellows had his first major success during the period from 1907-1909. His immediately recognizable paintings of prizefights were completed during this time, and in 1909, at the age of 26, he was elected as the youngest ever Associate Member of the National Academy of Design. In 1910, he married Emma Story, with whom he had two daughters: Anne, born in September 1911, and Jean, born in April 1915. He depicted his wife and daughters several times throughout his life.
Beginning in 1911, Bellows spent several summers in coastal Maine. The first summer was spent on the island of Monhegan with Henri and Randall Davey (1887-1964), a fellow artist. The island had become an artists’ retreat in the early 20th century and was also home to a working community of lobster fisherman. Emma, who was pregnant at the time, did not accompany her husband, although he wrote to her frequently. Two years later, in the summer of 1913, Bellows returned to Monhegan, this time with his wife and daughter in tow. This summer marks one of the most productive periods of his career. He produced more than one hundred works during a four month period, from simple sketches to exhibition-ready paintings. In 1916, Bellows began working on lithographs, and he was primarily responsible for reviving the medium in the U.S. From 1920-1925, the family spent their summers at their new home that Bellows built himself in Woodstock, New York. During this time he also produced a significant number of portraits. Bellows died suddenly from a ruptured appendix and peritonitis on January 8, 1925, at the age of 42, cutting short an immensely successful career that had shown no signs of diminishing.
The Big Dory was painted in Monhegan in October 1913, just before Bellows and his family returned to New York for the winter. The painting depicts fishermen launching a dory into the inlet between Monhegan harbor and nearby Manana Island. The painting employs the same vigorous brushstrokes that can be found in his earlier boxing paintings. It also demonstrates a drastic expansion in his color palette from the more subdued and neutral tones of his earlier works to a vivid array of rich, intense colors. This change was likely influenced by the Expressionist and Fauvist works Bellows witnessed at the 1913 Armory Show, which he had helped organize. Similar to his earlier works, the painting captures an active struggle in “suspended motion,” drawing energy from the contrast between the thrusting diagonal lines of the men and the horizontals of the boat and the storm clouds above. Bellows also altered the surrounding landscape to increase the drama of the scene, replacing the gentle slope of Manana Island on the left with a smaller version of Blackhead, a towering cliff on the opposite side of the island.
Throughout his life, Bellows was known as a wholly American artist. He refused to allow European or “fashionable” influences to interfere with his work, instead constantly depicting his own experiences. Because of his distinctly American vision, he was one of the most important figures in aiding the country’s transition from the Victorian to the modern era. What is it that makes Bellows’s art utterly American? How does his work compare to other characteristically American artists, such as Winslow Homer or Norman Rockwell? How do you think his career would have developed if it hadn’t been cut short by his death?
The George Bellows exhibit will be on view at the National Gallery until October 8, 2012. It will then travel to New York City in November and to London in March 2013. For more information, visit http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/bellowsinfo.shtm.