April 21, 2007 - June 17, 2007
American realist George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925) is remembered for his ability to capture the spirit and character of early-twentieth-century American life. His paintings, drawings and prints convey the liveliness and grittiness of a society defining itself in a new century. From the boxing ring to the seashore, his drawings have a vibrancy of line and energetic spirit that bring the scenes and times to life. Opening its national tour at The Frick Art Museum April 21, 2007, The Powerful Hand of George Bellows: Drawings from the Boston Public Library sets a new standard for recording the history and significance of the artist's drawings. The exhibition, which includes 57 drawings and related lithographs that demonstrate the artist's technical and aesthetic versatility, will remain on view through June 17, 2007.
George Bellows grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and attended Ohio State University. A talented athlete, he chose to pursue a career as an artist, rather than as a professional baseball player. However, some of his most famous images are depictions of sporting events, including boxing bouts, which were held not far from his New York studio. Through these images Bellows gained fame for capturing the physicality and energy of the sport with a vigorous style that was similarly masculine and powerful.
George Bellows studied with Robert Henri at the New York School of Art beginning in 1904, and became closely associated with the groups of painters known as The Eight and the Ash Can School. These artists felt an obligation to depict the details of daily urban life, and bring the plight of society's poor to light.
Bellows established his reputation with a series of paintings done between 1907 and 1915 of snow scenes in New York, creating a stark contrast between the white snow and the rough, grimy surfaces of city structures. However, his series of paintings portraying amateur boxing matches were arguably his signature contribution to art history. These paintings are characterized by dark atmospheres, through which the bright, roughly lain brushstrokes of the human figures vividly convey a sense of strength, motion and direction.
The selection of drawings in the current exhibition includes preparatory works for paintings and lithographs, and finished works intended for publication as illustrations in magazines and newspapers. Their subjects range from intimate studies of the artist's friends and family to public sporting events, social gatherings, and other candid snapshots of American life, many recorded on assignments for popular magazines such as Harper's Weekly and The Masses.
Bellows served on the editorial board of the socialist journal, The Masses, to which he contributed many drawings and prints beginning in 1911. Within the magazine's internal political debates, he argued for artistic independence from any editorial policy. He differed from The Masses' editorial policy in his active support of American intervention in World War I. The pictures he published in The Masses included working-class urban scenes and class-based social satire such as Business Men's Class, as well as unforgettable political commentary.
Drawings, such as Business Men's Class, April 1913, demonstrate both Bellows' facile draftsmanship and his ability to convey humor with portrayals of everyday scenes that skillfully tread the border of caricature. Bellows' large drawing, Preaching (Billy Sunday)1915, portrays the powerful charisma of the most celebrated and influential evangelist of the early twentieth century and his hold on gullible members of the working classes. Bellows takes Sunday's trademark stance, standing upon the pulpit and leaning forward aggressively toward his assembled congregation, and uses it to ground a carefully developed rectilinear composition in which the force of the preacher's personality is both compelling and frightening in its power.
Bellows used forthright and expressive line and combined different media in his drawings to capture the energy as well as the tension between upper and lower classes in America in the 1910s and '20s. In the drawing, Preliminaries, Spring 1916, Bellows blends vigorous strokes of black ink with crayon shading to evoke a dark undercurrent in the depiction of a wealthy fight patron and his companion as they prepare to view a boxing match. Many of the drawings in this exhibition are accompanied by their final version as lithographic prints, and it is interesting to make comparisons between the two formats.
In the accompanying lithograph to the drawing, Preliminaries, (titled Preliminaries to the Big Bout, 1916), Bellows pulls his focus back from his fascination with the voluptuous contours of the central couple and renders the perspective of the room more traditionally, while portraying the figures less expressively.
After 1908 Bellows continued to depict fight scenes and other city subjects but also portrayed seascapes in Maine, portraits and scenes of domestic life, while continuing his active work in illustration. His wife, Emma, and two daughters, Anne and Jean, were beloved subjects executed in paintings, drawings and prints. Bellows and his family arrived in Woodstock, New York in 1920 at the urging of his friend Eugene Speicher, the portrait painter. The artist lived in Woodstock for the five years prior to his death, during which he reveled in the inspiring landscape, the community life, and the enduring friendships that he established. Two 1921 drawings entitled Elsie and the lithograph, Elsie, Emma and Marjorie, First Stone, 1921, document the close friendships that he and his wife shared within the artistic community.
George Bellows used lithography as a means of developing illustrations and exploring favorite subjects. His work in lithography elevated its standing in the arts. A lithograph is made by drawing with a waxy crayon directly on a limestone slab; because of this it exactly conveys the artist's gesture and line quality. Bellows installed a lithography press in his studio in 1916, and his efforts expanded the use of the medium as a fine art in the United States. Between 1921 and 1924, he collaborated with master printer Bolton Brown on more than a hundred images.
The drawings and prints in this exhibition, from the esteemed collection of the Boston Public Library, were collected and donated to that institution by Albert H. Wiggin (1868-1951). Wiggin worked closely with H.V. Allison, Bellows' New York dealer and the exclusive representative of Bellows' estate, to assemble a comprehensive collection of Bellows' work related to illustration and lithography. They were last shown as a collection in the 1950s, and only a few sheets have been exhibited in public since then.
EXHIBITION ORGANIZATION, TOUR AND CATALOGUE
The Powerful Hand of George Bellows: Drawings from the Boston Public Library is organized by the Trust for Museum Exhibitions, Washington, D.C. The Frick Art Museum is the first venue to present this traveling exhibition, which will be shown at museums in six U.S. cities in 2007-2008 before ending its tour at the Boston Public Library, the most important collection of Bellows' graphic art in the United States.
Following its debut at The Frick Art Museum, the exhibition will travel to: The Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, OH (July 12-September 23, 2007); The Mennello Museum of American Art, Orlando, FL (October 11-December 23, 2007); Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, WI (January 10-March 23, 2008); Portland Museum of Art, Portland, ME (April 10-June 1, 2008); and the San Antonio Museum of Art, San Antonio, TX (June 21- August 31, 2008). At the end of its national tour, the exhibition will return to the Boston Public Library, where it will be on view from September 22 - December 1, 2008.
This exhibition is curated by Robert Conway, formerly the director of Associated American Artists and a specialist in modern American prints and drawings for more than twenty years. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue of the Wiggin Collection that features essays examining the history of Wiggin's gift, Bellows' status as a great draftsman, his place among American realist artists and writers, and the relationship of these powerful works to his better known paintings and prints. The catalogue will be on sale at the Frick's Museum Shop.