I came full circle this week. When I first moved to Washington back in 2004, I remember being awed and inspired by a wonderful show at the National Gallery of Art on Gerard ter Borch, the Dutch genre and portrait artist. This week I was back in town, checking out another fabulous exhibition of an important painter, this time George Bellows. (If you care about the history of painting, the National Gallery of Art is likely to have the best exhibits, from J.M.W. Turner to Edward Hopper.)
George Bellows was a member of the Ashcan School and an accolade of Robert Henri, whose treatise The Art Spirit is still required reading in art programs today. In it, Henri stresses the importance of capturing the essence of truth with paint. He encouraged artists to depict the world in front of them unflinchingly.
George Bellows took the task to heart when he dropped out of his studies in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio to pursue his artistic aspirations in New York city (a man after my own heart!). In search of gritty reality, Bellows focused his attention on the tenements crowded with New York’s poor. He also painted a series on the excavation of Penn Station, a massive project resulting in the leveling of eight acres of city blocks.
His works find beauty in the ugliness and represent the transition from Victorian ideals to modernism. The expressiveness of his painterly style offers beauty in and of itself. He was a master at capturing billowing steam in an industrial scene or the spray of the ocean surf near his island home in Maine. Through materiality, the paint becomes what it expresses.
Bellows is perhaps best remembered for his nakedly aggressive depictions of boxers fighting in illicit matches. The artist captures the gestures of movement, the fluidity, and the anatomy perfectly. His fighters are often described as faceless slabs of meat, but Bellows said there was less morality outside of the ring than in it. This is clear from the dumb, hungry expressions of the spectators.
This exhibition got me thinking about masculinity in painting. Bellows was painting at a time when President Theodore Roosevelt represented the epitome of American manhood – he was vigorous, individualistic, and the creator of his destiny through action. Critics at the time described Bellows’s assured, dynamic brushstrokes as similarly “masculine.” Bellows was certainly a virtuoso with a brush, but I am not sure that is the sole province of male painters. Even so, this attitude pervaded painting through the middle of the twentieth century.
Sadly, Bellows died at the age of 42 after contracting appendicitis. At the time, he was working in a number of different styles, suggesting that his work was evolving. His lifelong friend Edward Hopper lived decades longer, painting some of his most well-known works after his colleague was gone. It makes you wonder what Bellows would have achieved if he had lived to a ripe old age.