In George Bellows’s iconic 1909 painting Both Members of This Club, two boxers, one black and one white, are entwined in a violent dance of naked aggression in the ring, while lurid spectators cheer. It is one of several famous boxing canvases by Bellows, associated with the gritty realism of the Ashcan School painters of the early 20th century, including the artist’s mentor, Robert Henri. But curator Charles Brock positions Bellows as a more forward-thinking modernist in the first comprehensive retrospective of the artist in three decades, opening at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., on June 10.
“The boxing pictures could be characterized as a type of Action Painting, 40 years before the term was coined by the critic Harold Rosenberg,” says Brock. “The movements of the fighters and the physical reality of blood and sinew are virtually indistinguishable from painterly gestures embedded in the pigments themselves.” Through paintings, drawings, and lithographs (often political images published in left-leaning magazines), the exhibition highlights Bellows’s extraordinary range of styles and subjects, including sports competitions, views of New York teeming with both privileged and working-class life, Maine seascapes, female portraits, and World War I pictures influenced by Goya. “He was continually experimental, which is very much a modernist notion,” says Brock, “and his topics remain very current too—violence, issues of race, political elections, the role of women, large-scale urban enterprises.”
According to Brock, some of the tendency to historically misplace Bellows outside of modernism has to do with his premature death, at age 42, from a ruptured appendix. Born in 1882 in Columbus, Ohio, where he was a star baseball player, Bellows was a contemporary of Edward Hopper and Pablo Picasso. He moved to New York in 1904 to pursue painting— coinciding with the great immigration movement that was transforming the city—and he quickly achieved prominence in the art world.
In 1911, he was the youngest artist to have a work enter the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That institution also organized a “memorial exhibition” in 1925, says H. Barbara Weinberg, curator of American paintings and sculpture at the Met, where the retrospective will travel in November, followed by a showing at the Royal Academy of Arts in London next year.
Among the most astonishing of the cityscapes in the show are several canvases, such as River Rats (1906), showing stripped-down bathers swimming from rocky outcrops in the East River, an activity that seems unimaginable today. Four canvases painted between 1907 and 1909 depict the dramatic excavation of the Pennsylvania Station site, each under different lighting and atmospheric conditions. Only Blue Morning (1909) actually shows the grand Beaux-Arts depot, but it is shrouded in haze in the distance, with workers and machinery in the subterranean pit in the foreground. “What a brilliant choice to focus not on the building but on this massive void that the excavation unearthed,” says Brock. “This man was trying to wrap his mind around huge notions of what the modern city was. It remains to this day part and parcel of living in New York, to see these buildings go up and down.”
Weinberg refers to the canvas titled New York (1911) as “Bellows’s Sistine Chapel ceiling about New York.” Depicting the crowded, bustling intersection of Broadway and 23rd Street, Bellows seamlessly incorporated several vantage points to give a more panoramic scope. “It’s really emblematic of the energy and traffic,” Weinberg says. “It’s more about how New York feels rather than how New York looked, which I think is why these paintings continue to resonate with people today.”