George Wesley Bellows

Have you ever seen a painting of two fighters going at it hot and heavy on a stag night? If you have, then chances are that you have just seen a painting of George Bellows’s from Tom Sharkey’s Athletic Club in New York City. Prizefights were among some of his favorite subjects, although he only did few paintings of them. George Wesley Bellows was an American realist painter in the 20th century. He was thought of as an artist of the Ashcan school, although he wasn’t one of “The Eight,” which included George Henri and other well-known artists who painted images of the city and life there. His career included paintings of urban images as well as landscapes and portraits. Although his career was cut short at an early age, his paintings reflected America and everyday life in it.

George Bellows began his painting career in the early 1900s. He painted what was happening in the world at that time and it has been said that there were aspects of Bellows’ work, which were in advance of their time rather than abreast of or behind it. He can be thought of as the true progenitor of the American social realists of the 1930s and 1940s (Lucie-Smith 70). Early in his painting career, his casual scenes of people at leisure shone with the effortless grace that dignified all his work (von Hartz 31).

There were many influences on Bellows in his lifetime. The most significant of these influences was from the painter Robert Henri. Bellows was a pupil of Henri’s at the New York School of Art, and Henri was the dominant influence in his early work. They developed a close relationship and Bellows later called Henri, “my father in art” because he was such an influential and charismatic teacher (Hunter Museum 1). Although he never traveled abroad, through international exhibitions and teachers like Henri, Bellows was somewhat influenced by the art of Europe (Wasserman 81). Thomas Eakins was another artist who had a strong influence on him from the very start and continued to be influential throughout Bellows’s life (Lucie-Smith 69). Later in his life, he painted many memorable portraits of middle-aged and elderly women, which was due to his fascination with women (Oates 65). It can be seen that his wife and daughters inspired him also, as he made many paintings of them (Macmillian 19). At the beginning of his career, he played semi-pro baseball on the weekends in New York, which was how he supported himself before starting to paint. That predilection for sports lured him to Sharkey’s Club, which led to his many paintings of fight scenes (von Hartz 31). As a rugged athlete, later very much a family man, he fitted into the society he pictured. (Davidson 123). Living in New York was beneficial to him because both the city’s dynamic architecture and depressing poor influenced his work (Adams 1). The war years proved to be a turning point for each of the Ashcan Artists. After 1917, none of them devoted full attention to the interpreting life in New York. Turning away from topical subjects observed on the street, most of them concentrated on landscape, still life, portraiture, and figure studies that allowed them to investigate problems of design and color (Mecklenburg, Snyder, and Zurier 83). George and his family spent many summers on the coast of Maine, where the stark, windswept seascapes and landscapes proved a fresh source of inspiration for him. He rendered the landscapes with a starkness and purity at odds with the idealized naturalism of academic romanticism (Macmillian 17). With so many different influences, his paintings were diverse and distinct and continued to expose the world.

Bellows developed his style of painting throughout his life. Bellows was a student in Henri’s school, where he learned to use the world around him as the subject of his work. He revealed his concern for basic aesthetic principles through his carefully structured compositions. He said, “An artist who doesn’t use his imagination is a mechanic… a drawing is not a copy but an invention” (Reynolda 1). Throughout the period of developing his own style, descriptive line was the bedrock of his art. It can be found in the many illustrations he made for newspapers and magazines (Green 2). In many of his early works, Bellows composed a large number of seemingly unrelated forms into an energetic and unified composition. No body of work better illustrates the transition between two styles than that of Bellows. At first he chose for his subject’s moments when life ran high- the teeming streets of New York, the circus, the boxing ring, and the waterfront (Mendelowitz 319). In his later work, he focused on mostly landscapes and portraits. Between 1907 and 1924, he executed numerous paintings and lithographs of boxers that revealed a technical familiarity with boxing culture (Oates 63). In 1909 he set up a New York studio near the Athletic Club in order to be close to the prizefights, which were his favorite subject (Wasserman 81). In his earlier paintings such as “Stag at Sharkey’s,” Bellows captured the emotional energy of his subject. He never lost interest in portraying the human figure as a striking physical and emotional presence in his work (Adams 1). After acquiring a lithography press a few years later, he shifted his interest from brush technique to the compositional structure (Macmillian 18). Some paintings show Bellows’s interest in the kind of geometrically planned compositional system to be found in a number of Eakins’s paintings (Lucie-Smith 69). Later in his career he reduced the detail in his form, utilizing the strong brushstrokes and areas of paint to put together the figure. He began to take real control of the picture plane by incorporating new stylistic elements, a change of pose, and altered color and an ambiguous setting to reveal something from the human spirit in the person who sat for him (Adams 1). His paintings grew in maturity as he aged, but his career was tragically cut short when he died in 1923 of a ruptured appendix (von Hartz 31).

The greatest period of activity and influence for the American artists known as the Ashcan school was prior to WWI. Ashcan school is a popular term used to designate the New York realists and their selection of backyards and ash cans as approved subject matter for their paintings (Perlman 196). The name, taken from the ever-present urban image of the garbage can, wasn’t actually coined until the 1930s (Sister 1). The Ashcan school painters represent the crucial moment of transition between the artistic values of the nineteenth century and those of Modernism itself (Lucie-Smith 61). The Armory Show of 1913 completely changed the American art scene by introducing Cubism and the whole mainstream of Modernist development (Lucie-Smith 61). The Ashcan school’s leadership was itself founded on an exhibition in 1908 at the Macbeth Galleries. The exhibition was a protest against prevailing policies at the National Academy of Design; it was a sensational success with the audience, if not entirely so with the critics (Lucie-Smith 61). At the turn of the 20th century, the decorous, genteel, refined surface of American painting was buckling from the pressure of new subterranean energies -raw, urban streetwise, radical- that would soon erupt and reshape the artistic landscape. The first wave of the modernist upheaval included the Ashcan school (Macmillian 16).

Although Bellows didn’t exhibit with the Eight Artists of the Ashcan school, by the time of the Macbeth Galleries show, his name was often linked with theirs as a follower of Robert Henri and one of the “youthful apostles of force, who express…the rush and crush of modern life, the contempt for authority” (Mecklenburg, Zuriers, Snyder 81). When Henri established an art school on Broadway in 1904, he gathered the other members of the old Philadelphia crowd and newcomers such as Bellows, Glenn Coleman and Reginald Marsh, who formed the second generation of the realist school (von Hartz 20). Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins, to whom he was frequently compared in his lifetime, both went abroad. Bellows never did, preferring to ferret out the best European work that came into this country and learn what he could from it (Morgan np). The attraction that Bellows had to Eakins’s work expressed itself in two ways- through Bellows’s choice of subject matter, and though his attitude to composition (Lucie-Smith 69).

His boxing prints were enormously popular, awaited with anticipation, and rapidly sold out their editions. The print version of “Stag at Sharkey’s” is considered by art historians to be the most famous American print of the twentieth century (Oates 64).

Bellows’s urban scene paintings were perceived as an accurate and important document of the time. For many members of his audience, Bellows’s art was about “real life” and “big ideas” (“Bellows” 2). His art depicts scenes of everyday life and he once said, “Anything that strikes you as real is worthy of being painted” (Reynolda 1). After 1908, his art explored several directions. He continued to depict fight scenes and other city subjects but also painted seascapes in Maine (Mecklenburg, Zuriers, and Snyder 82).

Originally done as oil on canvas painting in 1907, “A Stag at Sharkey’s” captures the dramatic scene of an illegal prizefight in all its realistic glory. The fighters are shown in a dimly lit room full of spectators. Bellows got close to the action to capture all of the fight’s elements such as blood, sweat and the shouting (Allen 1). Being the best-known lithograph, it has been analyzed by many different art critics. It portrays a boxing match in which the lighted protagonists are opposed, near-abstract volumes. Obscured by shadows, the peripheral audience members are, by contrast distinct and recognizable personalities (Green 1). The figures of the boxers appear larger in relation to the entire painting. It is, in face an illusion; but the aggressively painted and more brightly lit figures project themselves more forcefully toward the surface plane of the composition. The strong triangular shape compromised by the fighters and referee more assertively dominates the picture. The largest and primary triangle begins at the extreme left of the painting with the left-hand boxer’s hidden foot. It finds its apex in the right-hand boxer’s sharp elbow, and is completed by the left arm of the referee (Doezema 97-98). In this painting, Bellows uses a few different types of line such as horizontal, bent and parallel. He uses realistic and heavy shape and geometric form. He uses mostly warm colors on their bodies, having red and orange on their faces and yellow and nude on the rest of their bodies. Positive and actual space is used to concentrate on the fighters and the value that he uses on the fighter’s bodies contrasts with the dark background. He implies that there is a sweaty, wet feeling on the bodies of the fighters. The emphasis is where the two fighters’ heads meet and the referee creates symmetrical balance in the ring. There is even proportion between the fighters but they seem to be larger than anything else in the painting. The bright colors of the boxers create contrast between them and the rest of the surroundings.

“Stag at Sharkey’s” embodies the grittiness violence and masculinity of the new city. In Bellows’s boxing match, the spectators are vulgar; the expressions indicate that they are at least as violent as the match they are watching. But the boxers themselves are reminiscent of stags in nature, still graceful while locked in combat (Sister 1). Prizefights, caught at their most violent were among Bellow’s favorite subjects (Davidson 123). Bellows focused upon the physical agony of the boxers; they weren’t athletes in any middle class sense of the term, but men fighting for their lives (Oates 63). The canvas “Stag at Sharkey’s” is actually more than a sports vignette; it is a landmark of realism as Bellows sets the tension of the straining boxers against the rows of cigar smoking men passively awaiting first blood- or a knockout (von Hartz 31).

Being a painter of the Ashcan school was part of the reason that George Bellows painted scenes of the real world, so that others could see what life was like being poor and living in New York. He impacted America by his realistic paintings and his prizefights have been some of the most popular pieces of artwork in American history. He opened the doors for the new-age realist painters of the 20th century and left the world with the images of his art.

Works Cited