National Gallery of Art/Metropolitan Museum of Art/Royal Academy of Arts/Prestel, 335 pp.,$60.00; $40.00 (paper)
Within a year of George Bellows’ s sudden death, in 1925, at age forty-two—from complications from a ruptured appendix—Sherwood Anderson, writing in Vanity Fair, put his finger on a salient quality of the realist painter’s work. Looking at some of the artist’s last pictures, which were large and vaguely anachronistic double portraits, Anderson implied that the point Bellows was making with them wasn’t altogether clear, but had he lived, and gone on to other pictures, their meaning in the larger scheme of all his work might have become apparent. He concluded that the paintings were saying that “Mr. George Bellows died too young. They are telling you that he was after something, that he was always after it.”
Anderson’s quote, which appears on a wall label toward the end of the current Bellows retrospective, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, perfectly captures what viewers, taking in the artist’s justly acclaimed early scenes of a gritty and dynamic New York in the years around 1910—and his more purely artful later explorations of many different genres—may feel: that there was a remarkable restlessness, drive, and desire to experiment in Bellows. Anderson’s leaving unsaid what the painter was going after hits home as well. For in Bellows’s art one finds, especially in his early pictures, which are among the most beautiful made by an American, that his subject is elusive. It seems to be simply (or not so simply) an exuberance in being alive.
Bellows is most associated with the brushy and lustrous realist painting, with its feeling for public life—for surging crowds and commotion-packed doings in densely populated tenement streets—that held sway in New York in the years before World War I. Not long after he came to the city, in 1904, at twenty-two, from Columbus, Ohio (where he left Ohio State before graduating), Bellows became a student at the New York School of Art. There the tall, well-built, sociable, and brainy young man, who, back home, had excelled in a number of sports and played semipro baseball, was soon under the spell of Robert Henri, who essentially created the idea of an American realist art.
Stronger as a teacher and writer than a painter, Henri had a genius for getting beginning artists to believe in themselves. (His catalytic power, which owes a lot, I believe, to Emerson essays such as “The Poet” and “Self-Reliance,” can be felt in passages throughout The Art Spirit, his 1923 collection of class talks and articles.) Henri urged his friends and followers, including John Sloan and George Luks, and his students (among whom Bellows became the star), to take as their subject life as they encountered it, no matter how inartistic it might seem at first. It was Henri who got American painters…
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