Bellows Unmasked

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One of the most vivid, spontaneous American painters of the early 20th century, George Bellows, chronicled in bold strokes both the interior and exterior life of New York City. His best known oils are probably his boxing scenes – “Club Night,” “Stag at Sharkey’s,” and “Both Members of the Club” – all part of a literal treasure trove of Bellows’s work that just opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

The boxing paintings are riveting at close range, the brush stokes broad and immediate, yet when you stand back, the arrested ferocity and pathos merge seamlessly. This sweeping show is unique in that it’s made up of the best of Bellows’s total output of some 1,000 paintings and drawings, remarkable since he died in his early forties from a ruptured appendix that, in an odd way, seems prefigured by the violence of the ring.

"Blue Morning" inadvertently presaged the birth of the modern preservation movement. (Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington)

But Bellows could be lyrical and wonderfully evocative of the streets, too, and the remnants of nature coexisting there. My favorite Bellows is “Blue Morning,” which depicts the construction site of Manhattan’s original Pennsylvania Station in 1909. Light and an azure haze seem to move in tandem, while laborers huddle in the foreground and, overhead, the elevated railroad beams frame the scene in immutable iron.

Ironically, that gorgeous Beaux-Arts building was demolished in 1963 to make way for the eyesore that’s the current Penn Station. The battle to save the structure pitted its fans against city levelers and gave birth to the modern preservation movement, so there’s inadvertent history loaded into the artist’s brush as well.

See the first comprehensive exhibition of Bellows’s career in more than thirty years in Washington through October 8, 2012. The exhibit will then travel to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (November 15, 2012–February 18, 2013), and close out its tour at the Royal Academy of Arts, London (March 16–June 9, 2013).

James Conaway is a featured contributor on Intelligent Travel, and writes freelance for National Geographic Traveler and other publications devoted to travel, history, and culture. Read more from James on his wine blog.