A traveling retrospective of George Bellows offers a fresh perspective on an artist whose work transcended time, place, and the accomplishments of his contemporaries.
To say that George Bellows was quintessentially American is to state nothing less than the outstanding fact about the man. Though he moved in 1904 to New York City-then as now the artistic capital of America-and though he spent most of his career there, he was born in Columbus, Ohio, and he has always been associated as much with that city of the heartland as he is with NewYork. Bellows is also the only American artist of any importance ever to play semiprofessional baseball (with the Brooklyn Howards), an activity in which he excelled and that suited his strapping frame.
But in acknowledging his Americanness, one is struck by how much that fails to explain about the paintings, drawings, and engravings that he generated with almost tornadic force over the twenty years of his career and that are now the subject of a full-dress retrospective at the National Gallery of Art in Washington (June 10 to October 8). William Blake's famous adage, that "genius is always above its age," could be extended to the place in which it occurs: precisely because Bellows was so American, his ultimate transcendence of that fact is, or should be, striking.
That Americanness was hardly lost on Bellows's contemporaries. Soon after the painter died of peritonitis at forty-two, Joseph Pulitzer's paper The World emphasized that he was "distinctly American-American by birth, by training and by faith."1 The critic Forbes Watson had made the same point some years earlier when he claimed that "the training of this talented young artist, begun with [Robert] Henri, has continued under entirely American influences and conditions."2 Another critic put it more energetically: "Take any of these Parisian chaps, beginning with Henri Matisse...well, their work is ladylike in comparison with the red blood of Bellows."3