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'Gramercy Park' by George Bellows is a 1920 oil painting on display at the National Gallery of Art through Oct. 8.
BY SHEILA WICKOUSKI
For THE FREE LANCE STAR
The retrospective of George Bellows' works is about more than one man's life as an artist. Focused on Bellows' meaning more then his methods, the exhibit is about the shaping of the American mind at the beginning of the 20th century.
While Bellows pays homage to artists he admires, it is his bold personal vision, in tune with the tenor of his time, that pervades his realistic works. By portraying the gritty contrasts in social classes in the growing metropolis of New York City in the early 20th century, he joined the company of the political and social reformers of his age.
Breaking with the conventions of society portraiture, he chose his subjects from the impoverished inhabitants of the Lower East Side. While his "Little Girl in White (Queenie Burnett)" in her charming white dress is in honor of James McNeill Whistler's works in white, Queenie is, in reality, a laundress. The people in his "Cliff Dwellers" are akin to the tenement inhabitants described in social reformer Jacob Riis' "How the Other Half Lives."
Far away from bucolic landscapes, he documented the city's grittiness and growth with "Pennsylvania Excavation," proof that the original Beaux Arts Penn Station emerged from a raw hole in the ground.
Bellows fit his style to his subject. The leisure life in "A Day in June" is reminiscent of William Merritt Chase's work--pleasant and genteel with lyrical colors. "Election Night, Times Square, 1906" is crowded, dark and filled with political innuendos.
Having turned down a career as a professional baseball player, Bellows understood the energy in sports. He attended boxing matches, which at that time were illegal in New York City except in private clubs between members (loophole: fighters could be members for a night). Known for his boxing paintings, and maybe not as well noted for his horrific scenes of Belgian victims being massacred in World War I, Bellows found a common thread of violence in both.
Bellows' boxers, unlike Thomas Eakins' idealized athletes, are masses of moving energy, and the crowd is as much a part of the swirling action as the fighters. His war scenes--a tribute to Goya--are a call for vengeance.
Like Theodore Roosevelt--who was both an advocate for social justice, and a conservationist--Bellows' attention was not solely on the crowded city. A significant amount of his work depicts the raw beauty of a Maine seacoast sparsely populated with villagers, simple cottages, or a team of oxen. In these works, he shares a kinship with his fellow art students, Edward Hopper and Rockwell Kent.
Bellows also painted his wife, Emma, and his children many times. In a group picture, "The Studio," set in the large hallway of his house, Bellows is shown arranging Emma's dress for her formal portrait. His daughters play nearby. In the background, his mother-in-law is on the telephone alongside her maid, and a servant is cleaning rugs slung over the stair railing on the upper floor.
Bottom line: The verve of Bellows' works ensures that these are not simple period pieces. His themes of class difference, poverty, urban life, sports, war, violence, conservation and family life are still relevant to our American identity today.
Sheila Wickouski, a former Fredericksburg resident, is a freelance reviewer for The Free Lance-Star.