George Bellows

About the Artist

George Bellows (1882-1925) photograph c.1920 by Nickolas Muray

George Bellows (1882-1925)
photograph c.1920 by Nickolas Muray

George Bellows turned down an offer to play baseball with the Cincinnati Reds and, instead, became one of the greatest American painters and chroniclers of the twentieth century.

Early Life and Career

Bellows was born in 1882, in Columbus, Ohio. Bellows mother was 40, and his father 50, when he was born. His half-sister, Laura, from his father’s previous marriage, was eighteen when Bellows was born. Laura got married and left the household when Bellows was two. At school, Bellows excelled at sports and also at art. The summer before he enrolled in Ohio State University, he worked as an illustrator for the Columbus Dispatch newspaper. Bellows majored in English at Ohio State and it was one of his English professors who encouraged him to pursue a career in art.

Bellow’s mother was a religious Methodist and wanted him to become a minister, but his father gave him the financial support to study at the New York School of Art. At the New York School, in 1904, Benton met his teacher and mentor, Robert Henri, who encouraged his students to paint the images that they saw every day, rather than the idealized studio and salon versions of the world.

Out of this philosophy, came the Ashcan School of artists, who recorded the plight of the urban poor, the changing landscape of cities and the often harsh realities of everyday life in America. One of Bellow’s first exhibited paintings, was 42 Kids. It won a prize at exhibition, which was revoked when critics attacked the work. When asked if the critics objected to the naked children, Bellows answered, “No. It’s the naked painting they feared.” As New York grew, so did Bellow’s career.

Family Life and Later Career

In 1910, Bellows married fellow art student, Emma Story. He was very content with his family life and often painted portraits of Emma, and their two daughters, Ann and Jean. In 1911, Bellows installed a printing press in his studio and began to created lithographs.

One of Bellow’s most controversial works were his paintings and lithographs of reported German atrocities during World War l. His depiction of British nurse Edith Cavell, shot by a German firing squad after she was arrested for helping Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium, infuriated critics, who accused Bellows of not being able to portray the accuracy of such scenes, since he had not been there. His response was, “I never heard that Leonardo had a ticket to the Last Supper either.”

Some of Bellows most outstanding works are of the boxing matches that were outlawed, and then legalized, in New York. He actually used the boxer, Jack Dempsey, as the model for his painting, Dempsey and Firpo. Though Demsey won the fight, it was the moment in the first round, when Dempsey was knocked out of the ring, that Bellows captured.

Bellows died, a year after completing the Dempsey and Firpo painting, of a ruptured appendix.

Legacy

Bellows completed more than a thousand paintings in his too short lifetime. He was one of the youngest artists to be elected to the National Academy of Design. His works are included in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum, MoMA, the Smithsonian and other museums and galleries around the world.

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