SHOWS THAT MATTER: The Met Puts Realist Master George Bellows Back in the Ring

George Bellows, "Tennis at Newport," 1920, oil on canvas
(James W. and Frances McGlothlin)

WHAT: George Bellows

WHEN: November 15 – February 18, 2013


WHERE: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 5th Avenue, New York

WHY THIS SHOW MATTERS: American painter George Bellows is best recognized for his depictions of boxers caught in the throes of heavyweight matches at the turn of the century. In his iconic painting, Stag at Sharkey’s (1909), Bellows painted the illegal match as it would be viewed from the audience at ringside, aligning his artistic perspective with that of the event’s working-class spectators. That piece, along with 119 others from his lengthy and triumphant career, will be on view together in the first retrospective of his work since 1966, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Bellows was a protégé of Robert Henri, who authored the popular book The Art Spirit and served as a mentor to the likes of Edward Hopper and Arnold Franz Brasz. His mentees later became associated with the Ashcan school, which set itself apart as an early 20th-century art movement by its focus on realistic depictions of everyday life. In Bellows’s paintings, this translated most frequently to his palette and choice of subjects. As the museum’s press release points out, in paintings like Rain on the River (1908) he opted for a darker and more overcast landscape to better portray the industrial colors of urban geography, in stark contrast to the bright colors used by the impressionists. 

The exhibition dedicates two rooms to the artist’s lithographs, which played an important role in his practice, and which is an area where he asserted himself as one of few American masters – notably in his Self-Portrait (1921), in which he elegantly documented his likeness in the perfect reverse.

Organized in partnership with the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Royal Academy of Arts in London, what is best demonstrated in the massive exhibition is Bellows’ ability to capture a sense of motion within daily scenes and his human subjects. The limbs and muscles of the boxers fighting, or even the elongated bodies of polo players in his Polo at Lakewood (1910) are confidently executed in a way that emphasizes their fluidity, revealing that no subject of his was static, and that his goal was to create the truest portrayal of life-in-motion that he could muster.

To see artwork from the exhibition click the slideshow.