The George Bellows show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art really blew me away this weekend. I worked at an art gallery for some time, and learned about the Ashcan School of painters. Founded by Robert Henri (1865–1929) around 1900, this group of painters focused on depicting scenes as they were (Realism) instead of in the dreamy, staccato way of the American Impressionists.
Henri believed that painters needed to depict everyday subjects in an interesting and honest way: “What we need is more sense of the wonder of life, and less of this business of picture making.”
Members of the Ashcan School became instantly recognizable for their lavish use of black paint. Black paint had pretty much been eliminated by the American Impressionist palette, although it was used heavily by the Old Masters like Rembrandt, Frans Hals, and Goya. Contemporaries of the Ashcan school affectionally called them the “Revolutionary Black Gang” or the ” Ash Can Group” (hence the name).
Stag at Sharkey’s by George Bellows, 1909. Image courtesy of cleveland.about.com
George Bellows (1882-1925) was originally from Ohio. He moved to New York to continue his study of painting. Bellows met Henri shortly after arriving and started to study with him. Henri encouraged Bellows to depict scenes of contemporary life, even if the compositions and subjects challenge prevailing standards of taste. Bellows focused on impoverished immigrants in New York, especially children in “squalid and dangerous slums”.
Cliff Dwellers by George Bellows, 1913. Image courtesy of The Tenement Museum.
Bellows is really my favorite painter from the Ashcan School. He has an amazing sense of value and color. All of the paintings have so many harmonious colors, and really express a sense of light and dark. The canvases are so luminous, they seem to have a radiant light source within. One of my favorite paintings in the show was called Noon.
Of course I’m partial to it because of all the blue paint, but you can definitely see how there are areas of light and dark. The bridge and how it casts shadows over parts of the canvas, the dark areas with figures in the shade, and even the billowing smoke – just take a look at how masterfully they are all done:
Noon by George Bellows, 1908.
There were so many great depictions of New York City. In addition to his sensitivity to color, Bellows was an amazing draftsman. He carefully outlines shapes within the composition. Almost all of the paintings have a balanced foreground, middle, and background. And the subjects just seem to come alive, with all the care and detail with which they are painted.
New York by George Bellows, 1911.
But really, the best part of seeing all of these paintings was the opportunity to look at Bellows’s brushstrokes. It’s really difficult to see in photographs and images. That’s why going to museums and galleries are so important. There is a really, tangible experience of the painting that you just don’t get by looking at on the internet or in a book. As someone that paints, it’s a special learning tool to see how other people push paint around the canvas.
The Palisades by George Bellows, 1909. Image courtesy of the Tate.
As I looked at certain paintings, I noticed that Bellows directed the paint to follow the specific object he was painting. So for example, the water is painted horizontally and the tree is painted vertically. Take a look at smoke in the upper right hand corner. It’s really easy to see that Bellows swirls the paint around to mimic the way smoke billows in the wind. So pretty!
Snow Capped River by George Bellows, 1911. Image courtesy of the Telfair Museum.
Snow Capped River was another favorite. You MUST see it in person. The image above doesn’t even hint at what a beautiful work of art it really is. Bellows also changed the thickness of paint within his compositions. Certain areas are very flat, with thin layers of paint, and others are thick and impasto.
The George Bellows exhibit is at the Metroplitan Museum of Art until February 18th, 2013. Don’t miss it – the show is included with general admission!
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