Alongside Edward Hopper and Norman Rockwell, George Bellows is considered one of America’s finest painters – yet he is not that well known outside of the States. This exhibition aims to remedy this fact by showcasing his attempts to capture New York city life from the bustle of Times Square to Battery Park in the snow. It also charts his development as an artist during his short career; he died aged only 42.
Bellows’ distinctive style lends itself to the dark and disturbing, so much so that when he tries to capture moments of innocence and happiness his subjects feel inhuman – whether it be the inky blackness of the eyes of a little girl or the contorted bodies of boys playing on a pier. These serene works appeared both in his early and late career but he never quite mastered representing the more mundane aspects of life.
Bellows is most famous for his energetic paintings and drawings of boxing matches and these rightfully dominate the exhibition. His most recognisable work, Stag at Sharkeys, features two gladiators locked in a bloody embrace as a baying crowd eggs them on. The deliberate lack of facial detail accentuates the bloodlust and visceral animalism of the scene – this is apparent in both the competitors and the audience.
Despite his excellent boxing paintings our favourite is the gloomy ‘Excavation at Night’ where the foreboding pit recognises the lives that were lost in paving the way for Pennsylvania Railway station. It’s in exploring the uglier side of humanity that Bellows excels as can also be seen in his powerful portrayals of the first world war.
Outside of the US Bellows doesn’t have a significant footprint but this exhibition cements the case for Bellows to be considered one of the 20th century’s greatest painters.
George Bellows: Modern American Life is on at the Royal Academy of Arts from 16 March until 9 June. Tickets are £10, concessions available.
Also still on at the Royal Academy is the excellent Manet exhibition.