Into the Light: George Bellows, after 1914

George Bellows (1882–1925), The White Horse (1922), oil on canvas, 86.7 × 111.8 cm, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

The first article in this two-part series told the story of George Bellows (1882–1925), his life and painting up to the outbreak of the First World War.

George Bellows (1882–1925), Builders of Ships / The Rope (1916), oil on canvas, 76.2 × 111.8 cm, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

During the war years, Bellows continued to paint scenes of working life. His Builders of Ships / The Rope (1916) is unusual, in that it shows a brief revival in the building of wooden ships at a yard in Camden, Maine, during Bellows’ summer season painting there in 1916. A recurrent theme for paintings, wooden ship construction was even then a traditional craft, which Bellows celebrated in this canvas.

George Bellows (1882–1925), The Sand Cart (1917), oil on canvas, 76.8 × 111.9 cm, Brooklyn Museum, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

For his The Sand Cart (1917), Bellows had travelled to the coast of California, where he again caught working men engaged in manual labour, this time against a very different coastal background. This painting was shown on his return to New York, where it was well-received by critics, who compared it with the coastal paintings of Winslow Homer.

George Bellows (1882–1925), The Barricade (1918), oil on canvas, 122.2 × 212.1 cm, Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, AL. Wikimedia Commons.

Bellows was strongly against US entry into the First World War, and was horrified by the many stories of atrocities allegedly committed by German troops when they had entered Belgium. One, in which the Germans had apparently used the local population as a ‘human shield’, he expressed in his The Barricade (1918).

He had also been developing his skills of lithography, and in 1916 installed a press in his studio. From then on he produced increasing numbers of lithographs, many of which developed anti-war themes.

George Bellows (1882–1925), Three Children (1919), oil on canvas, 77.2 × 112.2 cm, The White House, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

In the summers of 1918 and 1919, Bellows was in Middletown, Rhode Island, with his family. During the second summer, he painted Three Children (1919), which in 2007 was installed in the Green Room of the The White House. The three children shown are believed to be his two daughters and the son of a local farmer, although the painting is as much about the rich rolling countryside beyond them.

George Bellows (1882–1925), Nude with Fan (1920), oil on canvas, 111.8 × 86.4 cm, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NC. Wikimedia Commons.

After the war, Bellows did more figurative and portrait painting, including this Nude with Fan (1920). This was not his first nude (which he painted in 1906, and has now become the second painting by Bellows in a British collection), but is remarkable for its richly-lit landscape vignette, a tradition going right back to the northern Renaissance.

George Bellows (1882–1925), Tennis at Newport (1920), oil on canvas, 109.2 × 134.6 cm, McGlothlin Collection, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA. Wikimedia Commons.

Tennis at Newport (1920) is one a series of paintings which he made in 1919-20 from sketches and studies made during summer tennis tournaments at the Newport Casino in Rhode Island. His interest is less in the sport taking place, and much more in the social event going on around it. This painting is set in the late afternoon, as the shadows grew long.

In 1920, he and his family started spending the whole summer in Woodstock, New York (State), and by 1922 they had a house and studio built there. Situated in the Catskill Mountains, this area had long been a favourite with US landscape painters.

George Bellows (1882–1925), The White Horse (1922), oil on canvas, 86.7 × 111.8 cm, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

Of all his paintings, I find his late landscapes the most moving and intriguing. He painted The White Horse (1922) on a farm near Woodstock. Seen in the autumn/fall colours of November, the scene is heightened by the light cast through broken shower clouds, making the white horse look almost supernatural.

George Bellows (1882–1925), Emma in a Purple Dress (1920-1923), oil on canvas, 160.0 × 129.5 cm, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX. Wikimedia Commons.

In the 1920s, Bellows painted his family more, including this carefully-posed portrait of his wife, Emma Story. Emma in a Purple Dress (1920-23) proved one of his most challenging works, and he scraped sections such as the head repeatedly before he got them right.

George Bellows (1882–1925), Dempsey and Firpo (1924), oil on canvas, 129.5 × 160.7 cm, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Bellows is perhaps best-known for his paintings and prints of boxing matches, many of them clandestine. Dempsey and Firpo (1924), though, shows a very famous historic boxing match between the heavyweights Jack Dempsey, who had been world champion since 1919, and Luis Ángel Firpo, an Argentinian challenger. This took place in the Polo Grounds of New York City on 14 September 1923.

From the start of the first round, the fight was gripping in excitement, with Dempsey knocking Firpo down seven times. Towards the end of the first round, Dempsey was trapped against the ropes, and Firpo knocked him out of the ring – the moment which Bellows shows here. Dempsey finally knocked Firpo out late in the second round. This was made from contemporary press photographs.

George Bellows (1882–1925), Summer Fantasy (1924), oil on canvas, 91.4 × 121.9 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Painted just a year before Bellows’ sudden death, his Summer Fantasy (1924) contrasts with almost all his preceding paintings. Using a formal and classical composition, he has brought together images of archetypes in a lush green park, with the Hudson River behind. Ladies in fine, flowing white dresses promenade with their husbands. Horses and their riders, some in the elegance of side-saddle, cross in the middle distance. The sails of boats on the river are backlit by the setting sun.

This has been interpreted as an allegory of life – from the baby in the pram in the right foreground, through marriage, to the final years. But we will never know where it was going to lead Bellows’ brush in the future. For in the New Year of 1925, he suffered appendicitis, which he left untreated. This resulted in peritonitis, from which he died on 8 January, in New York City.


H V Allison’s online catalogue raisonné.

Brock C ed. (2012) George Bellows, Prestel. ISBN 978 3 7913 5187 2.