Wednesday, 13 March 2013


Men of the Docks, 1912
As I was walking around the George Bellows exhibition at the Royal Academy yesterday, I kept hearing the soundtrack of Once Upon a Time in America playing through my mind, perhaps a decade or so out, but still capturing that raw energy of New York in the early years of the 20th century.
Bellows painted longshore men on the Brooklyn waterfront, waiting to unload a vast ocean liner with the skyscrapers of Manhattan in the background. He painted the street life of the Lower East Side, tin can fights between gangs, skinny boys bathing in the muddy East River,
and the vast excavation pit where workers toiled to build Penn Station. He painted the baying audience at seedy boxing clubs in the parts of the city where the tired, the poor and the huddled masses now swarmed. This is the underbelly of Edith Wharton's New York.

Stag at Sharkey's, 1909
North River, 1908
But Bellow also painted the powerful landscape that dwarfed the forces of industrialisation.And well-dressed middle-class families skating in Central Park on an icy-blue day, a painting that made me think of Willa Cather's Lucy Gayheart and her hopes and disappointments in another city.

Love of Winter, 1914
Mr and Mrs Phillip Wase, 1924

Easter Snow, 1915
There was something very poignant about Bellows' portraits of his own family, his elderly aunt with her lined face and thinning old-lady's hair, and his neighbours Mr and Mrs Phillip Wase - she a cleaning woman, he a gardener - her hands gnarled, her wedding ring so tightly embedded in her finger that she couldn't take it off and with a studio photograph of herself as a lovely young woman on the wall behind her.

Finally, simply because it seems horribly appropriate, I couldn't resist this painting of ladies in their new spring outfits defying the snowy Easter weather of 1915.

Bellows is barely known in the UK, so I don't suppose this exhibition will be a crowd-puller but I think it's a knock-out.

6 comments:

Toffeeapple said...

ntIf I could go to that, then I would; such a shame that all exhibitions are so far away from me.

The paintings are very touching.

mary said...

You need a well-planned day out, Toffeeapple, to fit in as much as you can on one train ticket!

kristina said...

A Bellows painting was the first work on the first museum tour I ever led! Never thought I'd see his work here in London--definitely planning a visit to the RA. K x

mary said...

I knew you'd know him, Kristina! But apparently there was a tiny exhibition of Bellows and the Ashcan painters at the National Gallery in 2011. I didn't even register that it was on, did you see it?
Good to see you blogging again!

Cosy Books said...

The landscape in Love of Winter looks as though it's straight from our very own Niagara Escarpment! Bellows is a new name to me, Mary, thanks for highlighting his work. And lucky you off to yet another wonderful exhibit.

mary said...

You're right, Darlene - it looks very like Niagara and not a bit like Central Park, as far as I can see - but that's what it said! I've only very occasionally seen his work before - no chance to over here!