Painter of the Strenuous Life

Where Edward Hopper found isolation, George Bellows heard the hubbub of modern America

Michael Prodger

Bright lights, big city: “New York” (1911) by George Bellows

More than half a century before Andy Warhol became New York’s honorary painter through pictures that encapsulated its loucheness and celebrity consciousness, the city had a more thoroughgoing chronicler. George Bellows (1882-1925) captured the surging energy and klaxon noise of the metropolis on the make like no other, before or since.

He is now known as a one-work artist, for his painting Stag at Sharkey’s of 1909, a boxing slugfest where two fighters tear into one another as a raucous crowd howls from the ringside. It captures not just the primal nature of boxing but of the world of the spectators too, a rich brew of atavism and stogie smoke. This is hardscrabble, blue-collar New York — Lower East Side immigrants and hard labour rather than Upper East Side patricians. As George Bellows: Modern American Life at the Royal Academy (until June 9)shows, however, history has done the painter a great disservice. There was far more to Bellows than one picture and his New York, a city of frantic building, sport, politics and commerce, is essentially the same today. The modern can be a long time changing.

It is worth thinking of Bellows alongside Edward Hopper. The two men were born in the same year and were taught by the same man, Robert Henri. Henri preached against the academy, the genteel and the appealing and believed, as Bellows put it, that the artist should “watch all good art, and accept none as a standard for yourself. Think with all the world, and work alone.” Although they remained friends Bellows developed into the anti-Hopper: where the one painted turn-of-the-century America’s urban loneliness, the other painted its franticness. There is no room for existential doubts with Bellows. If he had painted the bar in Hopper’s Nighthawks in which four isolated characters sit in silent communion he would have had it cigarette-fugged, teeming and spilling on to the street.

Bellows arrived in New York from Ohio in 1904 shortly after Theodore Roosevelt had given his landmark speech extolling “the strenuous life”. It was an ideal Bellows adopted as his own. Like Roosevelt he had taken to athletic pursuits to overcome childhood weakness and the soon-to-be president’s inherent appeal to masculinity and physicality suited him perfectly. It was backed up by Henri, who thought that before they picked up a brush the first duty of each of his students was “to be a man”. Bellows put it differently: “Try everything that can be done. Try it in every possible way. Be deliberate. Be spontaneous. Be thoughtful and painstaking. Be abandoned and impulsive. Learn your own possibilities . . . There is nothing I do not want to know that has to do with life or art.”

In paintings such as New York (1911) and Men of the Docks (1912) he portrayed Roosevelt’s strivers as part of the daily ebb and flow of the city. He employed a rough and rapid technique; not the en plein air method of the Impressionists but a hybrid version. Bellows would walk the streets, building sites and wharves watching intently before returning to his studio and painting from memory. So spontaneous were his impressions that he could finish a picture in six hours. So while his paintings lack surface finish they pulse with energy instead.

He did, though, share many of the Impressionists’ and their derivatives’ themes. Like them he wanted to be Baudelaire’s “painter of modern life”, so where Degas and Seurat painted Parisians at the races and Sunday bathing, Bellows showed New Yorkers at the same pursuits with Lakewood and the Hudson river taking the place of Longchamp and the Seine. Indeed Bellows was more in touch with the European tradition than is at first apparent. Echoes of Goya, Manet and Daumier are rife in his paintings while his pictures of urchins recall the examples of Velázquez and Caravaggio.

By the time of his death from peritonitis at 42 he had painted cityscapes and landscapes, genre scenes, war subjects (largely propagandist) and portraits as well as producing a body of graphic work for magazines. He never settled and stuck with one theme and it gives his art a transitory edge, as though the hubbub of the time was carrying him along with it. He was no dry and theoretical Modernist but someone who stood within sniffing distance of his subjects. As he put it: “A work of art can be any imaginable thing, and this is the beginning of modern painting.”

A different type of Modernism is on show in the bucolic surroundings of the Henry Moore Foundation at Perry Green in Hertfordshire, just an hour from the Royal Academy. Dotting the grounds and filling Moore’s barns alongside his own pieces are those of Auguste Rodin — the first major British showing of his sculpture in a landscape setting.

While Moore’s Modernism is self-evident Rodin’s is less so. There are, however, numerous aspects of his work that distance him from the academic figurative tradition. Like Moore he frequently saw the body as an aspect of landscape with figures emerging organically from their surroundings. He too tried to sculpt the subcutaneous world as well as the external, blurring the topography of the body with that of nature. Both men were fascinated by the torso as the sculptor’s starting point.

This exhibition is not at first sight an obvious pairing — the artists’ differences are more striking than their similarities. Moore, though, was explicit about the Frenchman’s influence: “I began to realise that a lot of things one might be using and being influenced by are, compared with Rodin, altogether too easy.” With a selection of sculptures, drawings and maquettes from the Musée Rodin in Paris joining the Moores in situ, the extent of Rodin’s posthumous example (he died in 1917 when Moore was 19) can be seen in full.

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