How do I write about George Bellows?
How do I ever explain or describe the feeling that comes over me when standing in front of one of his paintings depicting a boxing match?
I know nothing about the sport. Not much about sport in general.
But the power of these pictures and their ability to make me feel like I’m standing in a quiet corner, watching two men fight for their lives, is tremendous.
The George Bellows exhibition Modern American Life at the Royal Academy is wonderful.
Go see it for his landscapes, the New York scapes, and the river scapes.
Go see it for the drawings and the etchings that he made to earn a living, and a very successful one at that.
But above all else…go see it for his fight paintings.
At the time Bellows painted his first works depicting boxing matches, the sport was semi-legal and his paintings highlight the tawdry mood of these underground venues. There aren’t any women present and the men look poorly dressed and surly. And Bellows saw most of these fights at the Sharkey Athletic Club which was opposite his studio on Broadway.
Among his early fight paintings are Club Night, 1907 (above) and Stag Night at Sharkey’s, 1909 (below). In the former, the ropes of the ring are hidden in the shadows, almost making you feel like there isn’t much standing between you and the fighters. In Stag Night, the raw red of the boxers faces is not so much to symbolise blood but more to show aggression and exertion, with a few of the spectators bearing these colours as well.
Art historians also say that Bellows painted himself into the picture below – he’s the bald guy under the referees outstretched arm, with one eye on the fight and another on the sketch pad he’s holding out of view.
Bellows also later made a lithograph of the above work and titled it A Stag at Sharkey’s, 1917 (below), which though quite similar to the original, is not a mirror image of the painting. Bellows often made lithographs of his painted works, but he made sure they weren’t exact replicas so as to preserve the charm and uniqueness of the original paintings.
The White Hope, 1921 (above) is another boxing lithograph Bellows made. He produced all his lithographs at a very fast pace having installed a press in his house and hiring a man to work on it four days a week.
Preliminaries to the Big Bout (below) is the title of both a drawing and lithograph that Bellows made around 1916, that depict the sea change that followed boxing being made a legal sport. Women in their finery and men in top hats and tail coats now filled fight clubs; to be seen and to be entertained was the new name of the game.
Dempsey through the Ropes, 1923 (above) is a preliminary drawing of one of the last paintings Bellows did before he died from a burst appendix. The painting Dempsey and Firpo, 1924 (below) depicts a historic boxing match where Jack Dempsey fought Luis Firpo in 1923. While at the start of the first round, Firpo dropped Dempsey with a right hand, it was in the second round that Dempsey made a come back and dropped Firpo seven times before the match came to an end.
There are many aspects of this painting that are different from the first fight painting Bellows did in 1907. The lighting is brighter, the fight less ferocious (almost PG Wodehouseish), and it looks like Bellows has a great seat to watch it from. One of the few artists I know who could make a ballet out of a boxing match, this painting had me standing in front of it for an age.
Not an artist to be pigeon-holed, Bellows is considered to be one of the most versatile modern American artists of his time. He had promise both as an athlete and a commercial artist, yet he still chose to make fine art his calling.
Another powerful series of works that are a must see at this exhibition are the works he did on the World War I. Painted after the Bryce Report came out in 1915, these works depict a terror and horror that is quite unnatural for Bellows. The fact that he only did five of these paintings within a span of one year before going back to portraits and lithographs, is evidence to show that the war had a very powerful effect on him. Four of these paintings are on display at the exhibition.
Return of the Useless, 1918 (above), shows the sick and the young being returned from work camps as unfit for use.
The Barricade, 1918 (above) shows German soldiers marching into a village while using innocents to shield themselves.
The Germans Arrive, 1918 (above)
Massacre at Dinant, 1918 (above) depicts the impact that Francisco Goya’s work especially the Disasters of War series had on Bellows. That you can only see the bayonets with a hint of the approaching enemy makes the painting sinister; almost like danger and death lurking just off the canvas. The woman in the pink dress is said to symbolise Mother Mary, and the three trees a reference for the crucifix.
An untimely death at the age of 42 (from a burst appendix) cut short Bellow’s career. But he still has produced an enormous amount of work for an artist who died so young.
And all is not grim and fierce with Bellows. There is a side to him that shows a loving father and husband, especially the painting of his wife Emma at the Piano, 1914 (below). Her importance to Bellows cannot be questioned when he writes:
‘Can I tell you that your heart is in me and your portrait is in all my work?
What can a man say to a woman who absorbs his whole life?’
Painting did immerse Bellows completely. And we are better for it.