Genius is always above its age

Surely it is easy to see why Bellows has been viewed as the American painter par excellence. In his images of boys diving into the East River and boxers at the Polo Grounds, in scenes of Times Square on election night and Penn Station in the initial phases of its excavation, he has revealed to us the great and omnifarious American nation stirring itself awake at the dawn of the century it would come to dominate. What seems most conspicuous in these works is their combination of utterly fresh perception and exemplary power. Bellows's masterful New York from 1911 (Fig. 2) could almost serve as an illustration to John Dos Passos's classic novel Manhattan Transfer. An étude in bluish grays and browns, with unanticipated flashes of pink, gold, and green, this wintry cityscape is crammed with life, as a cast of thousands files across the foreground and the great, nascent skyline rises up in the rear. Its composition recalls the slightly earlier masterpieces of Maurice Prendergast, but all the lingering perfume of the Gilded Age has faded away and we run headlong into modern times.

Henry James famously referred to the world that Bellows painted, at the moment when he began painting it, as the American Scene. Bellows was far from the only artist who aspired to capture the realities of his native land. Robert Henri, his esteemed teacher, had enjoined an entire generation to take up this task. And many did: William Glackens, Walt Kuhn, Guy Pène du Bois, and others rose to the summons and achieved some notable results. But in most cases those results were more noteworthy for the novelty of their aspirations-the depiction of modern American life-than for their pure artistic achievement, at least by European standards. Only with Bellows at his best is that not the case. Only Bellows was equal to any continental artist in his complete mastery of his medium, as well as in his possessing that indefinable touch of the poet that enabled him to see not only the socio-political relevance, but also the transcendent loveliness (inBlue Morning) of smoke rising as an amethystine plume from a construction site presided over by a crew of faceless, yet all too human workers (Fig. 1).

Though Bellows's artistic mission was assigned to him by Henri, it ultimately derives from Baudelaire's injunction that painters record the modern world and the tumultuous scenes that surround them. Bellows could almost have been quoting the Frenchman in his claim that the artist "must be a spectator of life, a reverential, enthusiastic, emotional spectator."4 At the same time, there would seem to be something equally American-at least in early twentieth-century terms-in Bellows's resistance to theory for its own sake, as well as in a certain cultural conservatism that revealed itself when confronted by some of the more aggressive developments in Europe. "The Cubists," he wrote, "are merely laying bare a principle of construction which is contained within the great works of art which have gone before."5 He similarly had no use for Marcel Duchamp, who participated with him in the great Armory Show of 1913.

Bellows followed the promptings of Paris up to the point of post-impressionism and no further. It is as though, having found in that movement the perfect balance of art and truth, he felt no need to look any further. That is to say, his art, especially in the decade after his arrival in New York, took a boldly improvisational approach to reality, somewhere between the optic fidelity of the impressionists and the dreaminess of the symbolists and post-impressionists. And it is no small testament to Bellows's achievement that, although he had seen precious little work by his European contemporaries, he seems instantly, intuitively to have grasped its most essential formal and thematic achievements.

But the masterpieces that resulted were fundamentally different from what a European would have produced. Consider the exquisite Morning Snow-Hudson River of 1910 (Fig. 5). It is a triumph of observation, dominated by the bright earth tones of the bare trees and three human figures and by the mottled whiteness of the snow that spans out all the way to the frozen Hudson in the background. One cannot help but admire all that Bellows has seen in the stuttered rhythms of the fences in the middle ground, or the coarse textures of the exposed bark, or the father and child who pass a man driving his spade into the frozen earth. A European post-impressionist school would have sacrificed much of the reality in the name of poetic sentiment, while most of Bellows's American contemporaries would have foregone poetry and reality together in the name of social commentary.

[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

» View All