A work of art can be any imaginable thing, and this is the beginning of modern painting.” This quote from American artist George Bellows fittingly introduces his exhibit in the National Gallery of Art. The exhibit encompasses eight entire galleries in the West Building of the National Gallery and, shows the range of Bellows’ skill in both art and observation.
Born in 1882 in Columbus, Ohio, Bellows moved to New York at the age of 22. He painted life as he saw it and, in doing so, captured the human experience. Although Bellows is arguably most well known for his depictions of New York’s clandestine boxing matches, the exhibit at the National Gallery demonstrates the wide range of his work. From staged portraits to industrial workers and gentry enjoying Central Park, Bellows’ work explores a variety of life stories. Even his use of muted colors cannot detract from the vibrancy of his work — a vibrancy visible in the motion of his pieces.
Bellows’ strong brush strokes and charcoal lines as well as his selection of subjects bring his art to life through movement. In his 1907 painting titled “42 Kids,” one boy dives off a platform into a river as another splashes a friend. Likewise, in “Tin Can Battle, San Juan Hill, New York,” the boys are blurred in their ostensible motion across the canvas.
In addition to the recurrent motion in many of his works, another characteristic of Bellows’ art is his inclusion of people in nearly every piece. Even his set of four paintings of the construction of Penn Station highlights groups of workers, allowing the building to fade into the background.
However, despite Bellows’ fascination with people, the faces of the individuals in his paintings are unfocused, blurred or cartoonish. Each face appears as though the viewer is observing it through a translucent windowpane. Based on George Bellows’ preoccupation with the struggles of impoverished New York residents, his reluctance to show subjects’ faces may be an attempt to interact with the viewer; the anonymity of the faces allows the audience to relate to the working class and, perhaps, to see themselves in similar positions.
Two of the most interesting portraits that the Gallery displays are Bellows’ “Nude Girl, Miss Leslie Hall” and “Paddy Flannigan.” Although the two were painted a year apart and Leslie Hall’s pose is said to mimic the woman in Edouard Manet’s “Luncheon on the Grass,” placing these Bellows’ portraits side by side, the National Gallery practically begs for a comparison.
In keeping with Bellows’ well-worn theme, the position of these paintings creates a subtle commentary on social class. Although Hall is the wealthier of the two, she appears feeble and meek. Hall hunches over as she stares with sunken, worried eyes. Conversely, Paddy looks strong despite her emaciated frame.
George Bellows continued his social and political commentary by painting instances of German aggression. Although he did not immediately support American entry into World War I, Bellows clearly harbored fierce anti-German sentiment. His paintings from this period include “Massacre at Dinant,” which depicts Germans indiscriminately slaughtering a crowd. Bellows’ demonization of the Germans reflected public opinion at the time, a public opinion that was validated in the reparations against Germany in the Treaty of Versailles.
The variety of George Bellows’ work in the National Gallery, from his depictions of the struggles of poverty to the swiftness with which time passes, shows that he cannot be boxed into a single category. As an artist, he is much more than the raw energy in his paintings of boxing matches or the frantic motion of New York’s apartments. The National Gallery’s exhibit, running from June 10 to Oct. 8, explores the complexities of the man who knew no boundaries. As you reach the final room in the exhibit, a quote from Sherwood Anderson, an American writer, attracts your attention: “[Bellows’ paintings] keep telling you things. They are telling you that Mr. George Bellows died too young. They are telling you that he was after something, that he was always after it.”