Yesterday afforded the opportunity to take in the relatively new George Bellows retrospective at the National Gallery of Art. George Bellows (1882-1925) has been eclipsed in recent years by Edward Hopper, the other famous student of Robert Henri, who led what was later called the Ashcan School in New York. Hopper hit his stride in the late 20s, just around the time that Bellows died -- prematurely, from complications arising from a burst appendix -- when Bellows, in fact, seemed poised to make a breakthrough. What Bellows was able to create ranges from unforgettable to regrettable, and this exhibit of over a hundred prints, drawings, and paintings makes clear that it is perhaps not only for painting that he should be remembered.
Pierre Henri pushed his students to go back into art history beyond Impressionism, and the influence of Manet and the Realists weighs heavily in Bellows's work. The many fine lithographs and ink drawings in the exhibit are the best examples of how Bellows brought the satirical and political leanings of Daumier and the graphic shock tactics of Goya to his focus on the common man in New York City in the early 20th century. A well-meaning socialist, Bellows documented the squalor and hunger of the tenements like a journalist: the urchins in street fights or run-ins with the law, a brawl in Times Square on the night of a New York gubernatorial election, the grueling excavation to build Penn Station, hungry stray dogs prowling for scraps on a garbage heap, the hardships of prison, and the grim view of executions both state-sponsored and vigilante. Bellows achieved a Rembrandt-like intensity in many of these works, which he was not always able to transfer to paint, but he also crossed the border into bathos with a series of sensationalist propaganda images relating the human rights abuses perpetrated by German soldiers in Belgium in World War I.
Where Daumier loved the stage and performers of all kinds, it was the boxing ring that most memorably caught Bellows's eye. It was here that he was best able to catch in paint the newspaper-like immediacy he accomplished in lithographs, especially in Stag at Sharkey's, a boxing portrait that is one of his best paintings, grouped in the exhibit with two other less familiar boxing portraits and complimented by lots of print images on the subject (the NGA has quite a collection of the boxing works, including the lithograph of Stag at Sharkey's, which is even better than the painting). Bellows was also particularly moved by the plight of children in the poor neighborhoods of New York, a subject that he caught so memorably in the Corcoran's Forty-Two Kids, capturing the rubbery bodies of poor kids at the industrial river's edge with beautifully brushed loops and whorls of paint. The same subject is explored in a selection of other paintings from private collections and museum loans, including River Rats and Hals-like portraits of these tough-nosed urchins -- Paddy Flanigan and Frankie the Organ Boy (an orphan organ grinder) -- who might later become the blood-spattered pugilists of the private boxing clubs.
Peter Schjeldahl, Young and Gifted (The New Yorker, June 25)
---, Audio Slide Show: George Bellows (The New Yorker, June 21)
Rupert Cornwell, Streetwise scenes with plenty of punch (The Independent, June 18)
Philip Kennicott, National Gallery takes a holistic view of George Bellows’s art and career (Washington Post, June 7)
Kevin Nance, Another Round for a Realist Contender (Wall Street Journal, June 1)
The George Bellows exhibit will remain on view at the National Gallery of Art through October 8, after which it will travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (November 15, 2012, to February 18, 2013) and the Royal Academy of Arts in London (March 16 to June 9, 2013).