George Bellows, one of the most important names associated with the realistic school of American painting, was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1882. He attended Ohio State University where he actively engaged in sports and artistic activities as well. In 1904, he left for New York City to pursue the study of painting, entering the New York School of Art where he came under the influence of Robert Henri and the group of artists around him who were interested in painting the world around them as it really was. Under the tutelage of this group, and concerned with the social problems endemic to New York’s dynamic growth, he found in the city a vital inspiration for his art.
The National Gallery of Art’s documentary, George Bellows, now available on DVD, provides viewers with an excellent introduction to the man and his work. While it does spend some time on the details of his life, the major focus of the film is his art. Unlike many documentaries on the arts, the emphasis here is on the work. There are no talking heads. Every once in awhile a contemporary critical opinion is read in voice over by an actor, but even these are rare. The film uses a lot of archival footage first of New York City and then of Monhegan Island in Maine, the setting for many of his later paintings, to supplement the wealth of reproductions of his many paintings, drawings and prints.
Indeed, it is in the presentation of the variety of his work that the documentary excels. There are the pictures of the lives of the poor in the city—children cavorting at a river’s edge, lonely tenement buildings, teaming street scenes. There are pictures illustrating the sometimes questionable effects of the city’s rapid expansive growth, especially what might seem his obsession with the enormous chasm created for the construction of Penn Station. There are the famous boxing pictures, including the well known painting of Firpo knocking Jack Dempsey out of the ring and almost into Bellows’ lap as he was later to quip. There are the portraits of poor children seen as a comment on the social inequity of portrait painting, as well as the less political portraits of his wife and children.
He was to stir up some controversy before the country entered into WW I with his pictures of German atrocities. Critics complained that his work was unfair as he had never witnessed the atrocities he painted. This led to his famous riposte that he wasn’t aware that da Vinci had a ticket to the last supper. The film also looks at his critical paintings depicting the Evangelist Billy Sunday. In general, it makes clear his attraction to socialist ideas and the effects his politics had on his work. Later landscapes and seascapes of his summers in Maine show another side of his art as do his paintings of Woodstock where he eventually had a studio.
The documentary which runs about 30 minutes is narrated by Ethan Hawke. Included as an extra is a two minute feature containing archival footage of the city from the Library of Congress some of which is used in the body of the documentary. There is also an original three minute tour of the Maine setting called An Island in the Sea: Bellows’ Monhegan. Finally there is a gallery of his works set to music.
Bellows died in 1925 from complications resulting from a burst appendix. Today he is recognized as one of the pre-eminent painters of his era, and a dynamic force in the history of American art. The body of his work as illustrated in this documentary is an effective demonstration of the validity of that judgment.