George Bellows was one of the leading American exponents of realist painting during the first quarter of the twentieth century, and, like many of his fellow artists, he often drew on contemporary life as the subject matter for his paintings and lithographs. Born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Bellows attended Ohio State University for three years, then moved to New York City in 1904 to enroll at William Merritt Chase’s New York School of Art. There he studied under Robert Henri, a successful portrait and figure painter, legendary teacher, and a champion against traditional forces in art.
Bellows flourished under Henri’s tutelage. Although he initially produced works in the dark-toned manner of the early Ashcan School idiom, he quickly developed a powerful, muscular style of his own. When Stag at Sharkey’s (1909, Cleveland Museum of Art), Bellows’s vigorously painted, ultra-masculine boxing picture, was first exhibited in April 1910, Bellows vaulted into the forefront of American realist painting. Surely one of the greatest pictures in American art, Stag at Sharkey’s imprinted upon Bellows a deserved reputation for painting bold, serious works full of vitality that was to last until his untimely death in 1925.
Bellows’s works are characterized by a strong compositional order and harmonious color arrangements. One of the greatest critical thinkers in American art, Bellows experimented with several theoretical painting methods over the years, exchanging ideas and strategies with Henri and others of the Ashcan school. Eternally restless, Bellows often devoted himself to new color and formal theories, only to suddenly change direction, sometimes retaining certain elements but often discarding ideas entirely from his working process. Consequently, Bellows’s oeuvre has distinct, if short, periods, each of which reflect a different facet of the artist’s interests at the time.
Although Bellows was closely identified with Henri and his anti-establishment group, he was elected an Associate of the conservative National Academy of Design, the youngest artist so honored, and was made an Academician in 1913. He exhibited at the National Academy between 1907 and 1918, and was the recipient of many prizes and medals. Among the other exhibitions in which Bellows participated, winning many awards along the way, were the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, from 1907 to 1925; the Art Institute of Chicago, from 1908 to 1924; the Corcoran Biennials, Washington, D. C., from 1910 to 1923; and the Contemporary American Artists (later, the Society of Independent Artists), New York, from 1908 to 1925. As a member of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors he helped to organize the Armory Show of 1913, where he exhibited nine works of his own.
Bellows’s varied interests led him to explore different genres as his mood suited him, but portraiture was one constant throughout his career. And while his experimentation with contemporary art theories would seem to mark him as a modernist, Bellows understood his work as the extension of three American masters of the preceding generation: Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, and James MacNeill Whistler. This becomes evident when looking at Bellows’s portraits, which combine the frank, psychologically penetrating characteristics of Eakins’s portraits with color harmonies adapted from Whistler’s. Bellows also often used poses reminiscent of the works of the American master portraitists, William Merritt Chase, John Singer Sargent, and Bellows’s mentor, Henri. Bellows used portraiture as a vehicle for artistic exploration. He found the demands of portrait commissions to be frustrating, and once he was firmly established as a successful artist, he limited his portraits to friends or family, making these mature works among the most intimate of his entire oeuvre.