George Bellows (1882-1925), Paddy Flannigan (1909) — the insolence with which he guards himself is not going to help him much in life
Dear Friends and readers,
Another must-see! Splendeurs et misères (as in Balzac’s novel). This one is just chock-a-block with these magnificent brilliant stunning pictures, intelligently set up so you can journey through a career and age:
Knowing that I cannot do justice to the initial impact, social vision, painterly splendor, and wide range of the pictures (they seem to come from so many museums, private collections, and books) by George Bellows at the National Gallery, I thought I might suggest why people should be sure and go to this exhibit either in DC, or New York (it’s coming to the Met next) or London (the Royal Academy) by at least displaying unusual images reprinted in the generous catalogue book edited by Charles Brock, but I find that lots of people have beat me to it. The Net has a slew of images of Bellows work readily available, and armed with a few titles and a little effort the viewer can find many lesser known lithographs:
(a favorite subject for Bellows), Hudson River landscapes:
paintings of widespread banal poverty and mutually-inflicted human misery:
hugely crowded (not a space, not a place of rest in the canvas) and exhilarating or nearly people-less and desolate nightmare city- and industrial landscape:
and of course savagely violent boxing:
The Net even has caches of Bellows’s lesser known exquisite John Singer Sergeant (or Cecilia Beaux) type portraiture:
So what could I say that would suggest maybe there is something there you’ve not seen before? or remind you of what there is to see in huge and vivid size? or suggest what this particular exhibit might offer them?
Well, first, I lead with two portraits I found especially arresting, and a third picture card landscape (Inman’s populist Central Park). Then show by choices from the wide selection on the Net and my new book that while partly denying this (nervously), the exhibit nonetheless cannot help but insistently demonstrate the moving socialist and pro-people point of view that Bellows spent much of his art making electrifyingly visible.
I hope this choice suggests something of the variety and themes Bellows favored for most of his career. He worked for a magazine called The Masses, and was close with John Reed (Ten Days that Shook the World) whose name pops up repeatedly in the little explanations on the walls of the exhibit. The electrocution is one of these:
A note of critical evaluation: Wonderfully attractive & sharply incisive, some with satirical commentary (as in his huge pictures of Billy Sunday with huge crowds labelled by his as evil for art, spiritual life and decency) as most of the paintings and drawings are, they did fall off after or around the time of World War I. The exhibit reveals how quickly Bellows was tremendously successful despite his apparent iconoclasm and radicalism. If he did make visible what the elite and powerful did not like to look at in real life, they didn’t mind when it came to his art. And as he grew successful, he seems to have stepped away from painting scenes of modern half-crazy slightly nightmare-like city life and landscape, from exposures of human cruelty.
In the exhibit World War I was a kind of turning point for Bellows’s art. While his WW1 pictures were certainly shocking and determined to show the viewer Writ Large the hideous violence and indifference to human suffering that war causes (hands cut off, a woman with her breast cut off by a man who sits next to her smoking a cigarette) and how people have no problem inflicting inhumane gov’t policies:
they are also overt propaganda which falsifies, makes theatrical and turns war into crass displays of sentiment. As Bellows grew richer, went to live in Grammercy Park, took his holidays in Maine,and built a home in Woodstock, he began to idealize and make enigmatic landscapes, which if lovely felt child-like or cartoon-y.
One example: until this turning point, I was so aware of the hard life of horses in Bellows pictures. Big dray ones, tired, men standing nearby with whips; they were ubiquitous, used carelessly and ignored (in the picture at any rate). Then suddenly there was this vision of a horse at last without a harness, making its way towards a heavenly sky:
Now the dog is happy, tail wagging, getting plenty to eat.
His later work is made up of more landscapes (now undistinguished from postcard type), pictures of himself, Emma, his wife, and daughter as, fore example, an exemplary fisherman and family, of the daughter dressed like an upper class lady of long ago, jumping rope in the privacy of Grammercy Park. These show the same splendors of paint and strong theatricality of all the paintings, maybe show it up.
Maybe one of the reasons Bellows did so well was finally his paintings do not disquiet, even the most savage of them. They celebrate being alive; nature is a dynamic glorious force and if many people have to live anonymous hard lives, they are not doing it alone and they do it vigorously.
Throughout the exhibit one read of how “masculine” was his vision and it is true that except as John Singer Sergeant type ladies or young working girls painted with unusual compassion and dignity in the same mode, the pictures are crowded with men, show male activities, present young working boys (rather than girls) bathing in the city rivers. Women appear: scolding children, as prostitutes, as fancy paid mistresses of fat cat males with top hats, but they are more in the mode of side affairs, decorations, there like the horses with male as the main dominating sufferers and power. When his style changed, and grew more stylized, flatter, I liked his pictures less. I found too that I sometimes got more out of his drawings, the lines bringing out clearly what he was showing than the colouristic treatment of the paintings.
Perhaps had Bellows lived into the depression, he would have found a new angle and returned to his original subject matter and perspective, moved into another new style. He did die young: aged 42, of peritonitis after his appendix burst. Cut off but not forgotten.
I do not mean to detract from the value of the paintings at all, but rather suggest that a viewer sees enough to begin to think for herself beyond the incessant praise of the explanations. The exhibit was accompanied by tables in the center of the rooms with hand-written notes by Bellows or his wife of prices, exhibits, their plans of what to do next. You felt them as people, two lives and a career unfolding before you.
As I particularly love meditative landscapes, I was entranced by the vivid variety and intense colors of these, the appropriate objects and things in them, like a particular kind of tree, a lone house, sparkles in just the right corner of something. Winter and (the real effects of) snow were favorite themes for Bellows — and so too for me. And I spent many years of my life walking up and down drives along the Hudson river so was drawn in repeatedly:
It seems that Bellows’s wife, Emma (who was a fellow art student) managed to live quite well after her husband died. She had been a central person in his life; one sees that immediately after his death, a wide exhibit was set up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that she carried on selling his pictures for higher and higher prices. His loving picture of her which suggests a fulfilled domestic life is one of the lead pictures for the exhibit:
The National Gallery has quite a summer schedule of exhibits. There’s a fine small display of photography called “I Spy” (“the theater of the street”); pictures by the Renaissance writer, Castiglione; and coming in another couple of weeks
another blockbuster show, this one featuring alluring pictures which remind me of E. M. Forster scenes
Jim and I are lucky to live within a hop, skip and jump of Washington D. C.
We get to the National Gallery by driving at around 2 pm to a street about 5 minutes away from our house which allows three-hour parking. The three hours is over at 5 pm. So we are safe from a ticket. The Metro train is a block away, the trip about 20 to 30 minutes depending on vagaries of fixing, time, crowds. Then we walk a block in the Penn Quarter which is just the sort of place that Bellows would have painted.