American painter and lithographer. He was the son of George Bellows, an architect and building contractor. He displayed a talent for drawing and for athletics at an early age. In 1901 he entered Ohio State University, where he contributed drawings to the school yearbook and played on both the basketball and baseball teams. In spring of his third year he withdrew from university to play semi-professional baseball until the end of summer 1904; this, and the sale of several of his drawings, earned him sufficient money to leave Columbus in September to pursue his career as an artist.
Bellows studied in New York under Robert Henri at the New York School of Art, directed by William Merrit Chase. He initially resided at the YMCA on 57th Street. In 1906 Bellows moved to Studio 616 in the Lincoln Arcade Building on Broadway; over the following years the other tenants at this location included the urban realist painter Glenn O. Coleman (1887–1932), Rockwell Kent and the playwright Eugene O’Neill. Across from Bellows’s studio was the Sharkey Athletic Club, the setting for one of Bellows’s most famous paintings, Stag at Sharkey’s (1909; Cleveland, OH, Mus. A.), two fighters painted from the memory of a bout Bellows had witnessed there.
Although prizefighting where admission was charged was illegal in New York at this time, certain ‘prizefighting clubs’ such as Sharkey’s circumvented the law by charging a club membership fee to view the fights. The promoter’s way around the illicit nature of prizefighting is satirized in the title of another of Bellows’s early paintings on this theme, Both Members of this Club (1909; Washington, DC, N.G.A.). His early paintings are executed in a tonal palette of primarily creams and browns scumbled by streaks of white, with the vigorous broadly stroked brushwork characteristic of the work of Henri and his students. They evoke the smoky, dark, illicit crowded space of the ring, and capture the tawdry underworld flavour associated with these ‘prizefighting clubs’ at the turn of the century.
Prizefighting was finally legalized and the New York Boxing Commission was established as a regulatory agency. By 1923 it was considered not only respectable but fashionable to attend the supposedly more civilized sport of boxing (as opposed to prizefighting). The New York Evening Journal commissioned Bellows to paint the heavily publicized boxing match between Dempsey and Firpo. In the 15 years between Both Members of this Club and Bellows’s painting of Dempsey and Firpo (1924; New York, Whitney), radical changes had occurred both in the public acceptance of boxing and in the style Bellows used to portray it. Bellows’s earlier slashing brushstrokes had given way to smoothly contoured, geometricized human figures carefully arranged in a coherent compositional scheme governed by an underlying geometric pattern of intersecting diagonals, which is also evident in his painting Ringside Seats (1924; Washington, DC, Hirshhorn).
In 1916 Bellows installed a lithography press in his studio and began producing lithographs with the printer George C. Miller (1892–1964). He became less interested in brushwork and more interested in pictorial structure. In some of his lithographs he satirized the physical improvement concerns of white-collar businessmen, at a time when President Roosevelt was promoting the ‘strenuous life’ for American males, for example Businessmen’s Class, YMCA (lithograph, 1916; Ann Arbor, U. MI Mus. A.) and Shower Bath (lithograph, 1917; Cleveland, OH, Mus. A.). He began to treat the human figure more simply and geometrically and to experiment with composition. In 1917 he attended a series of lectures by Jay Hambridge, who proposed elaborate geometrical formulae for pictorial composition using a system he called ‘dynamic symmetry’. In 1918 Bellows and Henri undertook serious study of Hambridge’s theories, and Bellows was so profoundly converted to the method that he later professed to Henri that dynamic symmetry was probably of more value than anatomical study. Hambridge’s theories were edited and posthumously published in 1924 as The Elements of Dynamic Symmetry.
Bellows was associated with the Ashcan school of painting. An example of his early Ashcan work is the painting Steaming Streets (1908; Santa Barbara, CA, Mus. A.). Although he was not a member of the Eight (ii), he did show work at the Exhibition of Independent Artists in 1910. He was awarded a prize by the National Academy of Design in 1908 and in 1909 was elected an associate member, the youngest member ever elected. He also exhibited at and helped to organize the Armory Show (1913). Bellows was considered a quintessential American artist, one of the few who did not study abroad. In the years leading up to his death, caused by complications arising from an operation, he executed a number of landscapes and a group of figure compositions ranging from a crucifixion, to boxing, to nudes in idyllic landscapes. There is also a group of intimate portraits of his friends and family.
M. Sue Kendall
From Grove Art Online
© 2009 Oxford University Press