George Wesley Bellows (August 1882 – Jan 8, 1925) was an American realist painter, known for his bold depictions of urban life in New York City, becoming, according to the Columbus Museum of Art, “the most acclaimed American artist of his generation”.
George Wesley Bellows was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio. He was the only child of George Bellows and Anna Wilhelmina Smith Bellows (he had a half-sister, Laura, 18 years his senior). He was born four years after his parents married, at the ages of fifty (George) and forty (Anna). His mother was the daughter of a whaling captain based in Sag Harbor, Long Island, and his family returned there for their summer vacations. He began drawing well before kindergarten, and his elementary–school teachers often asked him to decorate their classroom blackboards at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
At age 10 George decided to become an athlete, and trained himself to become a popular baseball and basketball player. He became good enough at both sports to play semipro ball for years afterward. During his senior year, a baseball scout from the Indianapolis team made him an offer. He declined, opting to enroll at The Ohio State University (1901–1904). There he played for the baseball and basketball teams, and provided illustrations for the Makio, the school’s student yearbook. He was encouraged to become a professional baseball player, and he worked as a commercial illustrator while a student and continued to accept magazine assignments throughout his life. Despite these opportunities in athletics and commercial art, Bellows desired success as a painter. He left Ohio State in 1904 just before he was to graduate and moved to New York City to study art.
Bellows was soon a student of Robert Henri, before the later-famous artist had set up his own famous school, who at the time was teaching at the New York School of Art. While studying there, Bellows became associated with Henri’s “The Eight” and the Ashcan School, a group of artists who advocated painting contemporary American society in all its forms. By 1906, Bellows and fellow art student Edward Keefe had set up a studio at 1947 Broadway Street.
Bellows first achieved widespread notice in 1908, when he and other pupils of Henri organized an exhibition of mostly urban studies. While many critics considered these to be crudely painted, others found them welcomely audacious, a step beyond the work of his teacher. Bellows taught at the Art Students League of New York in 1909, although he was more interested in pursuing a career as a painter. His fame grew as he contributed to other nationally recognized juried shows.
Bellows’ urban New York scenes depicted the crudity and chaos of working-class people and neighborhoods, and satirized the upper classes. From 1907 through 1915, he executed a series of paintings depicting New York City under snowfall. In these paintings Bellows developed his strong sense of light and visual texture, exhibiting a stark contrast between the blue and white expanses of snow and the rough and grimy surfaces of city structures, and creating an aesthetically ironic image of the equally rough and grimy men struggling to clear away the nuisance of the pure snow. However, Bellows’ series of paintings portraying amateur boxing matches were arguably his signature contribution to art history. They are characterized by dark atmospheres, through which the bright, roughly lain brushstrokes of the human figures vividly strike with a strong sense of motion and direction.
Growing prestige as a painter brought changes in his life and work. Though he continued his earlier themes, Bellows also began to receive portrait commissions, as well as social invitations, from New York’s wealthy elite. Additionally, he followed Henri’s lead and began to summer in Maine, painting seascapes on Monhegan and Matinicus islands.
As Bellows’ later oils focused more on domestic life, with his wife and daughters as beloved subjects, the paintings also displayed an increasingly programmatic and theoretical approach to color and design, a marked departure from the fluid muscularity of the early work.
One of Bellows’ central subjects was the sea, and he painted over 250 scenes of it during the course of his career. The Fisherman (1917), a significant late canvas focusing on the topic that he made while visiting Carmel, California, is in the collection of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.
In addition to painting, Bellows made significant contributions to lithography, helping to expand the use of the medium as a fine art in the U.S. He installed a lithography press in his studio in 1916, and between 1921 and 1924 he collaborated with master printer Bolton Brown on more than a hundred images. The Amon Carter Museum of American Art holds one of the largest collections of Bellows’ lithographs, a set of 220 prints acquired from the artist’s estate in 1985. There are also large collections of his lithographs at the Boston Public Library and the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Bellows taught at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1919. In 1920, he began to spend nearly half of each year in Woodstock, New York, where he built a home for his family. He died on January 8, 1925 in New York City, of peritonitis, after failing to tend to a ruptured appendix. He was survived by his wife, Emma Story Bellows (married 1910), and daughters Anne and Jean. Bellows is buried at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
Paintings and prints by George Bellows are in the collections of many major American art museums, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, Rochester, New York, and the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and The Hyde Collection, in Glens Falls, New York. The Columbus Museum of Art in Bellows’ hometown also has a sizeable collection of both his portraits and New York street scenes. The White House acquired his 1919 painting Three Children in 2007, and it is now displayed in the Green Room.
The Whitney Museum of American Art published a biography of Bellows by fellow artist George William Eggers as part of the American Artists Series. In 1992 it mounted an extensive exhibition of his art (the exhibition was a joint venture with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art).
The Archives and Special Collections at Amherst College holds his papers.
In December 1999, Polo Crowd, a 1910 painting, sold for U.S.$27.5 million to billionaire Bill Gates. In November 2008, Bellows’ Men of the Docks, a 1912 painting of the Brooklyn docks spanning the East River and depicting the Manhattan skyline in the background, was to be auctioned at Christie’s in New York. It was expected to set the record for an American painting sold at auction with an estimate of $25–35 million. The painting’s sale however was a source of controversy at Randolph College because it was the first masterpiece purchased for the Maier Museum of Art by students and locals who raised $2,500 to purchase it in 1920. Due to a series of lawsuits and the deflated art market, the painting remained unsold until 2014 when it became the first major American painting to be purchased by the British National Gallery in London.
In 2001, Thomas French Fine Art became the exclusive agent of the George Bellows Family Trust.
Randolph College was asked by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to lend “Men of the Docks”, for inclusion in a 2012 exhibition. A major Bellows retrospective was held at the Royal Academy in London in 2013. “Men of the Docks” is now in the National Gallery in London.