DC at Night

DC at Night

Monday, August 27, 2012

George Bellows: American Artist with a Punch

"Dempsey and Firpo"
From his early days as a baseball player coveted by the Cincinnati Red Stockings to his later years as a noted painter of boxing matches and scenes of New York, George Bellows was a quintessential example of an American steeped in the American concerns of his times.

Bellows, who died in 1925 at the age of 42, is the subject of a current comprehensive exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. He was also the main focus of a weekend lecture delivered by Gallery lecturer Lorena Baines entitled Creating the Legacy of George Bellows: The Artist and His Critics
which was designed to explore Bellows' art in broad social and cultural trends.

"Bellows was always known as a specifically American artist," Baines told a large crowd assembled to hear her Sunday talk. "To understand Bellows, you have to ask - what did it mean to be an American in 1925?"

In the 1890s, right before Bellows emerged on the art scene, Americans, for the first time, began to consider American art as equal to that created in Europe. "Until then, American art was still under European influence," Baines said. That trend escalated through Bellow's career, "fueled by a surge of patriotism that came after World War I," she added.

Another factor reflected in Bellows' art was a growing tendency to celebrate a culture of masculinity and manly pursuits, much of it established by the personna of popular progressive President Teddy Roosevelt, who was a huge supporter of boxing.

A 3rd factor was a sense of isolationism, a belief that America should keep itself separate from all foreign concerns and press its own agenda. "There was a lot of reveling in American ingenuity,  American achievements such as the Panama Canal, and man's power to change the landscape," Baines said.

Finally, there was a real interest in regionalism, a rooting of art in "the familiar and understandable linked to American values," Baines said.

In his time, because he dealt so well with so many of those period concerns, Bellows "was hero-ized and much talked about," Baines noted. Even as recently as 2011, a critic contended that Bellows  "shows us what it means to be American."

Bellows was identified with the Ashcan school of art, which "believed art should make a social statement," Baines said. One of the best examples of social concern in Bellows' work is contained in his painting "The Lone Tenement" (1909) with its focus on the daily struggles of people displaced by increasing modernity and industrialization.
"The Lone Tenement"

His classic "Both Members of the Club" (1909) captures both the beauty and brutality at the heart of boxing, which at the time was illegal in New York. Enthusiasts, however, got around the ban by staging matches at local sporting clubs, making the boxers temporary members of the clubs. A closer look at "Both Members ..." shows the garish, grotesque faces of the crowd as if Bellows "was saying something special about the type of people that would go to these events," Baines postulated.
"Both Members of the Club"

And, of course, there are the magnificent renderings of New York City such as his series on the creation of Penn Station and "New York" (1911). In that latter work, Baines said Bellows "with his almost visual overload, captures the frenetic energy of New York City."
New York

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
If you can, I would highly recommend that you check out the Bellows exhibition. I think it is the best retrospective now viewable in D.C. The show closes on Oct. 8.

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