George Bellows (1882-1925): Modern American Life at the Royal Academy

By Ruth Hazard | 15 April 2013

Exhibition review: George Bellows (1882-1925): Modern American Life, Royal Academy of Arts, London, until June 9 2013

an oil painting of scene at New York docks
George Bellows, Men of the Docks (1912)© Randolph College, Founded as Randoph - Macon Woman's College in 1891, Lynchburg
Whether it’s the gaunt face of a starving child, the brutality of a backstreet boxing brawl, a man’s life ebbing away after electrocution or war scenes captured in the colour of dried blood, George Bellows’ work is anything but subtle.

But he never intended it to be. Bellows poked into the dark and dismal corners of human existence to reveal the gritty reality that lay at the heart of 20th century American life.

Inspired by his artistic predecessors Velazquez and Manet, Bellows mastered the art of classical portraiture but turned his attention away from the typically middle class set of sitters.

Street urchins, vagabonds, manual labourers and immigrants; these were Bellows’ heroes, his paintings depicting every sad and sordid detail of lives that were characterised by impoverishment and social exclusion.

It’s through the eyes of Bellows’ subjects that we are able to imagine some of the defining moments of modern American history; from the horror of the First World War, to the construction of the Pennsylvania railway which saw New York forge industrial connections with the rest of the country.

This era may be well chronicled with dates and facts, but Bellows’ paintings put a human face to the story, the disorientating level of detail making a period of the past suddenly startlingly real.

The seething crowd of an unlicensed boxing match is marked with a dozen different expressions, a war torn battlefield is littered with pale bloodied limbs and the railway construction pit which claimed many labourers’ lives leaves a gaping hole in the urban New York landscape. Bellows work is so vivid, so intense, it’s as though you’re seeing history in high definition.

But it’s not all blood, grit and gore, as his career progressed Bellows became interested in painting domestic life, from intimate portrayals of his wife and daughters to rural seascapes off the Maine coast.

Despite the softer subject matter, these pictures are no less bold. Bellows worked straight onto the canvas, wet-on-wet, applying choppy tides with a rough stroke of the palette knife and trampled snow in dirtily mixed greys and whites.

This retrospective has a lot to live to up to; Bellows has long been championed as one of the greatest artists of his generation, despite a premature death at just 42.

Happily, it doesn’t disappointment; his brightly coloured, highly textured paintings are so full of life it’s hard not to become transfixed.

Each work contains a multitude of stolen moments and hidden glances, making it likely that you could see a Bellows picture a thousand times and still happen upon new details you’d previously overlooked. It’s worth calling off your plans for the afternoon; this is a display that should not be rushed.  

  • Open 10am-6pm (10pm Friday). Admission £6- £11 (free for under-12s), book online. Follow the Royal Academy on Twitter @RoyalAcademy. Follow Ruth Hazard on Twitter @RuthHazard.

More pictures:

a painting of a boxing match
George Bellows, Stag at Sharkey's (1909)© The Cleveland Museum of Art, Hinman B. Hurlbut Collection © The Cleveland Museum of Art
a painting of a street scene in early twentieth century New York
George Bellows, New York (1911)© National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington Photograph Greg Williams
a painting of a snow scene with people in period clothes
George Bellows, Love of Winter (1914)© The Art Institute of Chicago, Friends of American Art Collection Photography © The Art Institute of Chicago
a painting of a small harbour scene in a large inlet
George Bellows, North River (1908)© Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Joseph E. Temple Fund
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