George Wesley Bellows
Biography of American Genre Painter, New York Ashcan School.

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A Stag at Sharkey's (1907)
Cleveland Museum of Art.

George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925)


Early Life, Artistic Training
Ashcan School
New York Genre Paintings
Portraits, Seascapes, Lithographs
Armory Show
Later Years

Central Park (1905)
Ohio State University Faculty Club.

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One of the great 20th century painters of the realism school, the American painter and lithographer George Wesley Bellows was a pupil and follower of Robert Henri (1865-1929) ("art comes from life not theories"). A second generation member of the Ashcan School, he was famous for his down-to-earth genre painting and cityscapes of urban life in New York City, achieving success early in his career. In 1909, he was elected Associate of the National Academy, the youngest ever to hold the honour and in 1913 became a full Academician. Later the same year he was also actively involved in the organization of the Armory Show (officially known as the International Exhibition of Modern Art). His realistic, but mostly cheerful urban scenes drew widespread acclaim, as they addressed social issues, which were topical before the First World War. Recognized as one of the most evocative of realist artists, undoubtedly his greatest genre-paintings are his depictions of boxing matches, notably: A Stag at Sharkey's (1907, Cleveland Museum of Art), and Both Members of This Club (1909, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC). Despite his untimely death from a ruptured appendix at the age of 42, he is regarded as an important contributor to the development of modern art in America.

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Early Life, Artistic Training

Bellows was born in 1882 in Columbus, Ohio. Between 1901 and 1904 he studied at the Ohio State University, where he was encouraged to become a professional baseball player because of his sporting talent. Bellows rejected the idea, preferring to direct his attention towards painting. As a student he worked part-time as a commercial illustrator, drawing for magazines (which he continued to do throughout his life). In 1904 he moved to New York and started studies at the New York School of Art. There, he became a student of Robert Henri (1865-1929), also a native of Ohio and one of the founding members of the Ashcan School of art. Henri's other students included Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Arnold Franz Brasz (1886-1966), Stuart Davis (1892-1964), Rockwell Kent (1882-1971) and painter and photographer Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1893-1953). Just before his death in 1929, Henri was chosen as one of the top 3 living American artists by the Arts Council of New York.


Ashcan School

Bellows, through the influence of Henri, became a close associate of the Ashcan School. The school was one of the first modern art movements in America. Devoted to gritty realism, it is most associated with paintings that portrayed the working class conditions of New York's poorer neighbourhoods. The school was also associated with a group known as The Eight, the artists: Robert Henri, John French Sloan (1871-1951), George Luks (1867-1933), William Glackens (1870-1938), Everett Shinn (1876-1953), Ernest Lawson (1873-1939), Maurice Prendergast (1859-1924) and Arthur Davies (1862-1928). Artists associated with the group rejected the prettiness of American Impressionism which was popular at the time. They sought instead to represent the grime of New York inner-city life, and their oil painting was generally dark in tone, capturing fleeting moments - a boxing match, a prostitute, or lines of laundry hanging from a crowded tenement block. Despite this, their pictures were generally picturesque. In the years leading up to the First World War, many artists, including Bellows and Hopper were inspired to pick up the realism and subject matter of the group. In this way, the Ashcan school helped American art to discover it's own identity and to engage with modern times.

New York Genre Paintings

Between 1907 and 1915 Bellows painted a series of works, depicting New York under snow. Some art historians believe this is when he mastered his ability to depict light and shade with such skill. There were stark contrasts in the paintings, between the pure white snow, and the grimy buildings and the rough men who were shovelling the nuisance snow. It was however, Bellows portrayal of amateur boxing matches that gained him most fame. His painting Both Members of This Club (1909) is one of his most often reproduced works, particularly in poster art. The fights Bellows watched at Tom Sharkey’s Athletic Club in New York inspired it. At the time, public boxing matches were banned and private organisations made fighters temporary members of their club for the night, to circumvent the law. In this painting the viewer can almost smell the cigar smoke, sweat and damp clothes. As the match reaches it's final stages, the victorious fighter on the right lunges forward for the final blow, while his opponent weekly tries to defend the inevitable. Bellows uses quick, slashes brushstrokes, and his characteristic use of dramatic lighting and close ups enhances the viewer’s involvement. The audience's faces are almost disfigured by their bloodlust thrust for victory, displaying a darker side to human nature. Bellows repeated the theme many times, in works like Club Night (1907, National Gallery of Art) and A Stag at Sharkey's (1907).

Portraits, Seascapes, Lithographs

As Bellow's fame grew, so did his invitations to paint New York's elite. His portrait art is colourful and sensitive: see for instance: Florence Davey (1914), Maud Dale (1919), My Family (1916) and Anne and Her Mother (1917), all at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. He was also commissioned to paint Maine seascapes, where the wealthy went on vacation and tennis matches: Tennis at Newport (1919, Museum of Modern Art, New York). However, while able to mix with the rich with ease, Bellows continued to maintain a social conscience. He associated with a group called the Lyrical Left, a group which tended towards anarchism in their pursuit of individual rights. In 1911 he joined the board of The Masses, a socialist journal where he soon came into conflict with other members, as he believed artistic freedom should top any ideological editorial. Most notably, he disagreed with his circle by supporting America's entry into the War. In 1918 he created a series of lithographs depicting the atrocities committed by the German army during its invasion of Belgium. In 1916 the artist had installed a lithography press in his studio and collaborated with the master printer Bolton Brown on over 100 images. Bellows also illustrated several books later in his career.

Armory Show

Bellows became an important personality in the New York art scene. He taught for two years (1910 and 1917) at the Art Students League, a facility offering low-cost classes in drawing, sculpture, painting and printmaking to the public since 1875. The school has had some of the most important national and international artists as teachers. In 1913 Bellows became a full Academician of the National Academy of Art and Design. The same year he helped organise the now famous 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art (Armory Show) at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York. The Armory show had a major impact on American art, as it was the first time many saw the new developments in Art which had been taking place in Europe, namely Fauvism, Expressionism and Cubism. By contrast, much of the American art on display looked decidedly provincial. Despite this, Bellows did not succumb to European influences, carrying on painting in a realistic manner.

Later Years

In his later years, Bellows preferred to paint domestic subjects, often painting his wife and daughters. His works became brighter, more colourful, the brushstroke less aggressive and more fluid. In fact, his later style displays influences of Impressionism not unlike his Ashcan school contemporaries, John Sloan and William Glackens. In the last ten years of his life, Bellows also focused on drawing, which he considered the backbone of his work. He died in 1925, prematurely, at the age of 42 as a result of a ruptured appendix.


Paintings, drawings and lithographs of the artist can be found in most of the best art museums in America, including the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The Columbus Museum of Art states that "[Bellows] was the most acclaimed American artist of his generation". In 1999, Bill Gates bought Bellows’ painting Polo Crowd (1910) at auction, for $27.5 million.

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