George Bellows at the National Gallery of Art

Yesterday my wife Alice and I drove down to Washington, DC to the National Gallery of Art to see their huge George Bellows (American 1882 - 1925) show of paintings (through Oct. 8, 2012). 

Bellows was a school mate of two of my favorite artists- Edward Hopper and Rockwell Kent (both also born in 1882- obviously a great year to grow new artists) at the New York School of Art. All three showed a marked influence from their teacher, the charismatic Robert Henri, whose work was characterized by rapid execution with large brushes and a high sense of pictorial drama. Kent and Hopper gradually moved more away from Henri's style and vision as the years went by, but Bellows seemed to find a more comfortable fit  and stayed with the swashbuckling application. 

I've always been a fan of Bellows' paintings but was still surprised at how much impact most of his work had. Some of my favorites were his early landscapes from New York done along the Hudson River and the East River. Above is his oil Rain on the River which particularly grabbed me. 

Rainy day paintings can easily turn too gray and loose their energy. Bellows is careful to avoid that trap. While still keeping the painting mostly towards cool colors, Bellows scatters hints of a light copper orange color throughout the painting, especially successfully I think in the river water. There's what I assume to be a puddle of orange in the lower right hand corner of the canvas. It's strikingly dramatic and could have popped off the painting's surface but was held back in intensity and size just enough. It's a wonderful demonstration of someone knowing when to hit the color contrasts hard, but also of knowing what's just enough and stopping when he needed to.

Bellows never missed the chance it seemed to to put white steam or smoke billowing out somewhere (you can't help wonder he did it so much just because he liked how "billows" sounds like "Bellows"). And whenever he did hit a painting with the cool highlights of white smoke, he was certain to include somewhere else in the painting a counter-balancing warm highlight (such as our copper colored puddle).

One other thing about this painting. Bellows obviously saw this scene before him and let himself be captured by its eccentric charm. The path that winds through the park at the left really stars in this piece.  Another day it would have been dry and not reflecting down all those almost white grays from the sky. If you look closely at how he painted the path you see it's laid in first with a slightly darker gray. Over that Bellows carefully puts in a lighter gray to highlight its wild curving shape. But again he knows when to stop so the path doesn't take over the whole composition. Bellows at first can look to the casual observer like a wild man, but underneath he knew about restraint and finely tuned balance. 

Were it not so loosely painted, this Bellows oil below could have passed for an Edward Hopper. It's a remarkable painting, sporting some amazingly intense blues. To me one of the keys to its success lies in the extreme prominence the artist gives to the white surf. It is boldly white and would jump right off the painting and into your lap. But Bellows pins it down under the visual "thumb tack" of the house, the convex swell of the hillside, and the telephone pole. The three of them join forces to push the whitecaps back into the space of the ocean. Take a close look at that telephone pole- it's either an invention by Bellows, or if it did exist in the source, he radically exaggerated its height to make its impact on the water more formidable.

Wanted to end with one of my all time favorites out of the National Gallery's show- the monumental Island in the Sea.

It stands out in the exhibition as probably the most minimal of the displayed paintings. It looks for all the world like Bellow's classmate Rockwell Kent had painted it. It's a beauty and shows how much can be achieved with a few well crafted silhouettes and some subtle gradations of warm and cool grays.

My suspicion is Bellows used the same procedure I do- working outside on a small scale in oil and with drawings, and then assembling his bigger studio paintings from those plein air studies. When you do that you inevitably have to invent more forms and color chords to fill up the expanded surface area. Bellows was good at inventing, very good.

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