- George Bellows: American Artistby Joyce Carol Oates
- George Bellows: An Artist in ActionOur Pickby Mary Sayre Haverstock
Important Art by George Bellows
The focus of George Bellows's painting River Rats is a group of boys in the foreground lounging and splashing at the insanitary East River. The boys are playing in the shadow of a construction site and behind them is a large mound of dirt that acts as a barrier between the boys and the buildings that make up the cityscaped horizon. Under the direction of his teachers Robert Henri and John Sloan, Bellows took inspiration from the everyday events such as these which he observed while wandering, flâneur-like, through the streets of New York City. Here Bellows creates a stark and grittily modern realism in which the urban poor find their moments of amusement and escape.
This work serves as a good example of how Bellows's approach to painting would secure him a place in the Ashcan School of art. While many of this group's paintings have been interpreted as statements about the social inequality, for Bellows it was more an act of using his canvas to document the world he as he observed it. According to Mary Sayre Haverstock, "if such subjects seemed sordid, and many critics found them so, Bellows saw them in terms of movement and color. [...] social reform was not on Bellows's artistic agenda because, yes, there was beauty in the way the other half lived".
In the middle foreground of the canvas is a large area of snow-covered land on which excavation machines are at work. That the digging takes place below street level is clear from the walls around the site and the loosely rendered dark shapes intended to represent city buildings behind it. Steam billows from the machinery while the foreground is broken up by four silhouetted figures, looking down on the activity below.
Perhaps inspired by his father's work as an architect, Bellows took a great interest in the construction of New York City's Pennsylvania Railway Terminal (built between 1903 and 1910 and demolished in 1965). As an adopted son of the city, Bellows would have had many opportunities to stop and observe the ongoing construction in various stages over the years which he then memorialized. Bellows rendered this scene in a modern style consisting of broad swatches of color yet lacking detail to a point that hints at semi-abstraction. The dynamic, unbalanced composition signifies the rapid transformation of New York City in the early part of the century. The frozen winter atmosphere and the onset of dusk, meanwhile, bring an added sense of drama the scene; workmen are humbled both by the sheer scale of the manmade pit and by the unstoppable forces of nature.
When included in a New York School of Art exhibition (under the direction of Robert Henri) this painting, like those produced by his colleagues, was met with mixed reviews. According to Mary Sayre Haverstock however, John Sloan, another teacher at the school, foresaw the importance of these early works and described the exhibition as, "a great show" and suggested that "If these men keep on with this work (they don't need to 'improve') it means that art in America should wake. Henri is as proud as a hen with a brood of ducks". Sloan's prediction proved insightful as the exhibition led to the formation of The Eight, and the Ashcan School.
One of his many sports/boxing-themed paintings, and one of the most iconic paintings of twentieth-century American art, the work depicts two boxers locked in a hold as they compete in the center of a ring. The rivals are presented through pyramidal composition that hints at classical sculpture. Looking for potential rule infringements, meanwhile, a referee is hunched closely the right of the fighters. A cigar-chewing ringside spectator turns towards the painter, imploring him (or maybe us), through his pointing finger, to give our full attention to the fight at hand. Indeed, Bellows separates the fighters from their surroundings, not only through the ringside ropes, but through the bold use of color and shading. Notwithstanding his ability to intensify the drama of the picture in this way, the quality of the painting is evident in Bellows's skill at rendering the intense physicality - in the interlocked, sinewy bodies of the boxers - and energy - the rumbustious crowd and the urgent (futile?) intervention of the referee - by means of fluent impressionistic brushstrokes.
A sports lover since his childhood, the series of boxing paintings reflected Bellows's growing interest in the sport which developed only after he moved to the city. Amateur boxing bouts were illegal in New York and so contests such as this had to take place in privately run clubs. Tom "Sailor" Sharkey, a US Navy veteran, and former boxer himself, founded his eponymous club as a venue for men seeking to watch and/or participate in amateur boxing bouts. When an outsider came to compete, they were given temporary membership and were known as "stags". Bellows, whose studio was located across the street from the venue, was able to watch fights and produce several preparatory sketches. Yet he once claimed that he didn't know anything about the sport itself - he was "just painting two men trying to kill each other". At the time of the painting, boxing was beginning to shake off its status as a "barbaric" spectacle and was in fact becoming a more gentrified sport. In Bellows's picture, however, the tendency amongst observers is to read it as being analogous to the idea that only the strongest will survive this brutal encounter.
It is interesting to note that in 1917 (by which time prize-fighting had been made legal) Bellows produced a lithograph of the same image (and under the same title). In fact, Bellows produced a total of sixteen boxing lithographs at this time but A Stag at Sharkey's was the most ambitious and monumental of these, indicating, perhaps, the artist's own pride in his most famous painting. In the latter, however, Bellows, who used fine lithographic crayons to delineate his fighters from their more impressionistic surroundings, elected to remove the boundary of the ringside ropes, thereby placing the viewer more fully in the midst of the action.