In 1925, the year George Bellows died at the age of 42, New York overtook London as the biggest city in the world, with nearly 8 million residents. Nowhere is the scrappy, ugly, crowded nature of the city more real, or more visceral, than in Bellows’s tenement paintings, which capture the illegal boxing bouts, the street fights, the mob scenes, and the cheerful prostitutes of the city during the early 20th century.
The tenement paintings are on display in “George Bellows,” the National Gallery’s vast retrospective of the artist’s work, but they’re almost overshadowed by the astonishing breadth of the rest of the show. Curator Charles Brock and the NGA’s Franklin Kelly have assembled more than 130 works displaying the enormous range of Bellows’s career, from his extraordinary portrayals of light in snow-filled landscapes to his Renoir-esque portraits. But what the show also reveals, quite poignantly, is what a loss Bellows’s death was to American art, tracing his evolution from a talented and curious young sketch artist to a broadly experimental visionary.
Situated on the second floor of the National Gallery’s West Building, the show occupies almost ten rooms, each focused on a single theme. Bellows’s early work takes up the first space, exploring the paintings and drawings the artist made upon moving to New York in 1904. His eye seems almost anthropological rather than artistic; in “Election Night, Times Square” (1906) he captures a broad swathe of the city in dark, frantic detail. Hundreds upon hundreds of figures converge, pushing and jostling for space, their faces barely determinate. Many are fighting and screaming. In successive charcoal and pencil sketches, Bellows continues to follow the poor and the downtrodden, from a gang of fighting children to a pack of ravenous dogs.
And yet, as dismal as many of the scenes are, Bellows finds glimpses of beauty among the poverty-stricken tenement dwellers. His rendering of faces is curiously slapdash early on, leaving them looking almost distorted, but in “Little Girl in White (Queenie Burnett)” (1907), he paints a child laborer as if she were a princess, her large, dark eyes staring over her shoulder toward the artist. The setting is simple and stark—she wears a dull white dress and stands in front of a black wall—but her posture and composure make her seem almost regal. Penn Station, painted as it was being excavated in 1909, takes on an ethereal, dreamlike quality in “Blue Morning” (1909), with glittering gold light and cerulean tones that suggest the Mediterranean rather than Manhattan.
This show, which will head first to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and then to the Royal Academy of Arts in London, has two notable works that won’t travel: the aforementioned “Blue Morning” and “Both Members of this Club” (1909), a vivid portrait of a boxing match. Bellows captures the fighters’ bodies in excruciating detail, from the red streaks on one’s chest to the sinewy muscles in their arms; but the faces of the braying audience members are again distorted and vague, the garish grin of one viewer staring out from underneath the ring. The energy is indefinable, but the boxers have a grace and stillness that makes them seem almost godlike, frozen in time.
The great irony of Bellows’s work is that as well known as he is for his scenes of city life, almost half of the paintings he made during his short career were seascapes. “Shore House” (1911) is deeply reminiscent of Bellows’ friend and contemporary Edward Hopper, depicting an isolated white house situated adjacent to the ocean. A telegraph pole stands, crosslike, next to the small building, which dominates the painting, even though it’s a relatively minor presence amid the towering sea and sky. “The Big Dory” (1913) is also Hopper-esque, showing a group of fishermen pulling a boat into the water under a pile of rounded, heavy clouds.
It’s clear from Bellows’s diverse, changing body of work that he lived during a period of great change, both socially and artistically. His paintings vary from sharply modern and shocking in nature to classically arranged and meticulously drawn (his portraits from 1914 to 1923 are particularly exquisite, featuring women with soft, wistful faces dressed in ornate fabrics). In many ways, the show is so broad that it almost suggests Bellows hadn’t yet found his style when he died, that his efforts to capture everything from snowscapes to ladies wearing tulle to tenement kids wearing nothing at all left us without a signature body of work to draw from. The fact that he died unexpectedly while barely into his forties meant his early works would become as important a part of his legacy as his masterpieces. But as this show proves, it’s a hell of a legacy, nonetheless.
“George Bellows” is in the National Gallery of Art’s West Building through October 8. For more information, visit nga.gov.