George Bellows (1882-1925): Modern American Life
A slightly delayed exhibition review, but better late than never, as they say! So a couple of weeks ago, I took a break from dissertations to visit the Royal Academy’s latest show in their Sackler Wing. American realist George Bellows has been a favourite of mine for quite a while now. However, I was really only familiar with his boxing scenes (see Stag at Sharkey’s, Dempsey and Firpo etc.) and his paintings of city life (such as Cliff Dwellers and Forty-two Kids).
‘Modern American Life’ leaves no stone unturned when it comes to addressing themes in Bellows’s work; river views, snowscapes, war scenes, leisure studies and depictions of Pennsylvania Railroad are all present, as well as illustration work and lithographs. A painting you certainly should not skip over, despite its simplicity, is An Island in the Sea. Viewed from the side, the piece is not particularly spectacular at all. But standing directly in front of the painting allows for the paint’s glossy finish - a typical property of Bellows’s work - to flourish under the painting’s allocated spotlight, creating the illusion of glittering sunlight across the island’s surrounding waters. It was so beautiful that at one point, I found myself swaying on the spot to compare the two different visions (luckily, nobody saw me …)
The final room is a bit of a heartbreaker, as it looks at Bellow’s later works, including portraiture, before his life was cut short by peritonitis at the age of just 42. Whimsical, surreal paintings such as The White Horse and The Picnic give a significant contrast to the realism apparent in earlier pieces in the exhibition. The following quote from American writer Sherwood Anderson is used at the very end of the show, and addresses these later works that …
keep telling you things. They are telling you that Mr George Bellows died too young. They are telling you that he was after something, that he was always after it.
There is still a few more weeks left to see the show (it finishes on 9th June). It wasn’t particularly busy either, meaning you can really take your time and examine each and every stunning, lustrous piece. Even if you are totally unfamiliar with the work of Bellows, go along. At the end of your visit, you might just have found yourself a new favourite artist.