The American painter George Bellows is widely remembered for his early masterpiece, Stag at Sharkey’s (1909), a painting that represents a particularly American moment in art (one cannot imagine a French movement calling itself the “Ashcan School” ). Its depiction of a casual, democratic amalgam of high and low classes, unchecked criminality, bald financial opportunism, and exalted violence rendered with bravura and rough strokes make it exemplary of America’s penchant to elevate self-definition to the status of mythmaking. The work’s likely kindred is Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man (1942), or the later films noir, or even the Group Theater’s populist agitprop of the 1930s. It’s the sort of painting, and Bellows is the sort of painter, that people describe as masculine. Even the artist’s name sounds like a Bronx cheer shattering the polite silence of a museum.
The Royal Academy of Arts’s Bellows retrospective of seventy-one works displays a wider range of the artist’s talents while simultaneously zeroing in on why Stag at Sharkey’s has become his chef-d’oeuvre. In his Excavation series (1907–08), which depicts the section of Midtown New York razed to prepare for the future Penn Station, Bellows paints the vast construction site like a wound, with minute, bug-like workers against the muddy snow. He evokes a sense of destruction later associated with the station, which, less than sixty years later, was itself razed, one of the country’s most infamous desecrations of a historical and architectural treasure. Bellows avoids sentimentality, however, leaving no references to the less grand victims of this project: the demolished apartment blocks that once stood on this spot or their displaced inhabitants.
He abandons such restraint in his World War I pieces, the subjects of which he often got from news stories and photography in publications such as Collier’s and the Bryce reports in the New York Times. These paintings lack the punch of other great war-themed artworks, like Picasso’s Guernica or Goya’s The Third of May, in which the antagonists are absent or faceless and war itself is the enemy. In The Germans Arrive (1918), on the other hand, Bellows depicts German soldiers as caricatured brutes with high cheekbones and Hun-style helmets, reducing the work to mere propaganda.1
Bellows also painted more genteel subjects, periodically returning to portraiture, but he seemed always compelled to expose some ugliness, inherent or perceived, in his sitters. His early portraits of children, such as Frankie, The Organ Boy(1907) or Little Girl in White (Queenie Burnett) (1907), could be by John Singer Sargent if not for the subjects’ wonky eyes—the overly black pupils of both children—and the clumsy construction of Frankie’s face. When Bellows resists this penchant for the grotesque, he seems to lose interest. His depiction of the relaxed park visitors in A Day in June (1913) is lovely, but it’s also static; nothing seems to be going on, inwardly or outwardly, in these people’s lives. This artist, who could render flesh so ripe that one can practically smell the sweat off it, doesn’t do much more here than sketch the characters. (continue reading)