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George Bellows brings to mind an image of two boxers destroying each unlike any other artist. Perhaps the sweet science is the subject by which we best remember Bellows because his life was cut short at the age of 42 from peritonitis. So organizing a retrospective of 130 paintings, prints, and drawings requires some reintroduction to an artist whose subjects had greater breadth and more social relevance than pugilists pummeling one another.
Born in Columbus, Ohio, Bellows moved to New York in 1904 hoping to work as an illustrator in order to support his artistic ambitions. At the New York School of Art, he became a protégé of Robert Henri, who encouraged his students to leave the studio and work from the life they saw on the streets. From Henri’s tutelage emerged the Ashcan School, which also included artists like Edward Hopper and George Luks.
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Bellows worked fluidly within his medium. His paint and ink strokes have the dynamism of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, capturing the vibrant hustle of New York at the turn of the century with crude gestures of brush. Some paintings convey the despair of the working poor, from day-laboring longshoremen not selected for the day’s work to the crowded conditions of Manhattan’s tenements. Similar gestures convey the leisure of the upper crust as they volley on tennis courts and picnic on sun-dappled green fields.
Genre wasn’t Bellows’ only interest. The bulk of his work here focuses on landscape and portrait, and several rooms of the exhibit use that content to vary the rhythm and mood. Scenes of boxers and urban cacophony may pull visitors into the exhibit, but it’s only after the midpoint inclusion of some pleasant Maine seascapes that they get truly sucker-punched—in this case, by what might pass for outtakes from Goya’s “Disasters of War.” The second half of the exhibit leans heavily on printmaking—a medium Bellows took up relatively late—as well as drawings, all of them genre, and all of them socially mindful.
When producing a series about the first World War, Bellows never ventured abroad to witness conflict firsthand. Instead, he relied on accounts published in the New York Times from the Bryce Report—a document commissioned by the British government to recount the German invasion of Belgium in 1914. After the war, the report was deemed propaganda, as were Bellows’ prints depicting calm German soldiers committing barbarous acts. In prints, we see them flanked bybayonetted babies and nude women hanging from walls, breasts cut off.
Other works from that time were less controversial, but no less poignant, like prints and drawings of lynch mobs, electrocutions, and the sermons of evangelist Billy Sunday. All evoke the murky palette of Goya’s Caprichos. A black male writhes, burning at the stake. A criminal cries as he receives his last rites. An audience swoons, overcome by the spirit.
When Henri suggested his students work from the life of the street, he wanted them to create art with a “journalistic alertness.” Certainly, Bellows’ prints and drawings report back in a way his landscape paintings—or even his depictions of boxers—do not. (Even genre paintings made from these drawings and prints feel as if they are the news told secondhand.) While the exhibition’s press campaign has promoted the paintings, it’s Bellow’s work in other media that delivers the knockout.