January 08, 2013

"George Bellows" at The Met

To start off the New Year in New York City, let's visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art and its current exhibition dedicated to a quintessential American artist, George Bellows.

Born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1882, George Bellows made his mark at university both as an outstanding athlete and a talented illustrator.  Fortunately his artistic abilities won out and in 1904 he made his way to New York to study with Robert Henri and the Ashcan School.  Encouraged by the master to eschew the popular scenes of gentility and seek more contemporary subject matters, Bellows turned his focus to the City's impoverished immigrant population.  His early pictures of poor urchins cooling off by jumping into the East River in "Forty-two Kids", 1907 (see below), or formal portraits of street children like "Paddy Flannigan", 1908, earned him acclaim as a chronicler of modern life.

But it was his realistic depictions of the very popular sport of boxing for which he is most remembered.  Bellow's drawings, lithographs and oil paintings on the subject of prizefighting are unique in their ability to capture the raw conflict, masculinity and aggression inherent in the boxing ring.  Images such as "Stag at Sharkey's", 1909 (see top) use broad, slashing brushstrokes and contrasting colors to emphasize the brutality of the sport and the bloodlust of the crowd.  It is interesting to note that he returns to the same subject but in a decidedly more "art deco" style in "Dempsey and Firpo", 1924 (see below).

George Bellow's pictorial narrative of the history of New York from the excavation of Penn Station to the nearly completed Riverside Park are regarded as accurate impressions of the city at the beginning of the 20th Century.  Unfortunately his later works such as his imagined horrors of World War I (he never visited Europe) and his stiff and overly academic portraits of family and friends never achieve the degree of realism that infused his daring initial forays into modern art.

Though Bellows studied the European masters such as Velazquez, Manet and Goya, his work retained a uniquely American flavor in both subjects and execution.  It is for this reason that he is now being honored with this long overdue retrospective at one of the United States' most preeminent institutions.  "George Bellows" is on view at The Met until February 18, 2013.

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