“Love of Winter” by George Bellows: Violence on Ice

February 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

Love of Winter

Love of Winter

“…Bellows’ early death dissociated him from his peers, many of whom were also born around 1882. As artists such as Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, and Charles Sheeler lived into the 1960’s, Bellows was miscast as part of an older generation of more prototypical Ashcan School figures such as William Glackens, George Luks and John Sloan. Overlooked were the ways Bellows, as in his excavation series, had dug deep into the bedrock of late 19th century modernism and opened up a vast new contemporary space for his colleagues and successors in which to construct their creative lives. Equally significant was the sustained meditation on human violence that ran through his oeuvre, from the boxing pictures to the later war scenes…Bellows…can be seen to occupy a uniquely dynamic, open-ended place in American art history, one that defies consensus and marks the transition in American culture from the Victorian to the modern era…”
–From George Bellows: An Unfinished Life by George Brock, p.8 in the retrospective catalog.

My effort to write about the Bellows retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art sent me thesaurus hunting, because all the usual adjectives of praise found in reviews of books, art, or theater seemed bloodless, like the perfunctory words of a greeting card. I found my books, but my brief search for the right words was not rewarded. Bellows has a language all his own, a language I cannot describe but through the effects on me of his dramatic rendering of life’s startling, somber music.

The National Gallery of Art in Washington organized this retrospective exhibition in association with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and London’s Royal Academy of Arts, where the exhibit will open on March 16th.

February 18th is the last day of this landmark exhibition at the Met.

Malcolm Cowley said “[John] Cheever’s prose is alive. If you put your hand on it, it squirms like a snake.”

The best of Bellows’ work can make the viewer jump, as it deceives, comments, records, satirizes, defeats expectations, and confounds critics, but, above all, his best paintings, drawings, and lithographs tell a story (Bellows himself had nothing positive to draw about the critics of his day, fellow artists participating in the jury system. Jurors are singled out for ridicule in the lithographs The Jury and Artists Judging Works of Art, both from 1916).

In the words of my perceptive friend Susan Schott, the university press publisher with whom I viewed the Bellows show, “He creates characters that invite you to speculate about them.”

More than any American artist I can think of, his work impels the viewer to puzzle out the dramatic action of his subjects.

This narrative quality is the point of departure for Sean Willentz’s probing essay (published in George Bellows, the retrospective’s beautiful and informative catalog, edited by Charles Brock), Spectacle, Politics and the Young George Bellows about the 1906 drawing, Election Night, Times Square:

Bellows-Election-Night

“…The glare from the canopy and the street light dispel enough of the darkness to make it possible actually to see, and a lot of what is exposed is violent…For Bellows, other things he saw in the square were far more compelling than politics. After a hard-fought, high profile election campaign, the altercations—at least in Election Night—arise from primal human desires and urges, depicted as vital and course. Perhaps Bellows intended to evoke the violence that lay just beneath the surface of politics, especially in the recently concluded campaign. But, whatever he may have meant to imply, the real contest in Election Night is the fighting in the street…”

Bellows is an artist of La Comedie humain, or to borrow (anachronistically again) a film title, of High and Low, and nothing human is alien to him.

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To enter these rooms filled with Bellows’ best paintings is to receive a forceful reminder of the inestimable value of public museums and to feel grateful to them, as well as to the foundations, donors, and curators who have restored a clear and present vision of his oeuvre. Outside of museums, and sometimes even despite them, it is rarely possible for the great unwashed to breach the vault of private ownership.

When I first visited the Columbus Museum of Art in the early 1980’s and happened on the permanent Bellows collection, I was struck dumb by the variety, meticulous execution and apparent authenticity of the world this Columbus native had depicted.

Seeing Polo at Lakewood (1910), I stopped and stared: What was happening here, who were these people? I saw an agony of horses and men, two teams of warriors. Of the left-side team of four, one of the horses is barely visible, while one, maybe two of the players are in danger of falling. There is a hint that something’s gone awry, the result perhaps of an underhanded maneuver by a member of the opposing team?

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The genteel spectators dressed in white and black watch only the man on a black horse who is about to murder the wooden ball. The black horse’s difficult dance leaves a small cloud of dust. On the right hand periphery we see the back of the coachman, a funereal figure clad in formal black attire, with his top hat and the tip of his horsewhip clearly visible. The whip, like the one owned by Bellows’ father in the lithograph, Sunday Going to Church, is a symbol of power. Bellows powerfully paints his keen awareness of where power resides and where it does not. What the critics often overlook is that Bellows exposes not overt violence only, but the cruelty implicit in human relationships as well as the American caste system.

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The action of Polo at Lakewood is riveting, a painting that captures motion so well, it can make you dizzy if you stare at it too long. There is also a sly kind of humor in the contrast between spectators and players. And, to quote a passage from the Met Museum’s excellent audio guide (in discussion of the painting, New York, 1911):

“It is no surprise that a painting like this coincided with the emergence of movies in America. The scene echoes some of the era’s earliest films, which for the first time captured people and vehicles in motion. It’s as though Bellows has tried to compress an entire moving picture into a single frame.”

I would apply the latter sentence to Polo at Lakewood, Stag at Sharkey’s, Both Members of this Club, and other works.

Bellows has a fine sense of humor and irony, and both were in evidence when, as David Park Curry informs us in his catalog essay, Life of Leisure: Polo, Parks and Tennis, 1010-1920, Bellows made a lithograph of Love of Winter “for his family’s Christmas greeting in 1917.” I say this because Love of Winter is not the pleasant winter scene it has been made out to be by Curry and many others, as I will show.

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(An aside: Crowd at the Polo Game (1910 above), Polo Field (1920 Wash on Paper) and Polo sketchimages-3 (1921 below) present starker images that highlight more clearly the barely suppressed violence of the Polo game. Just look at the horse’s posture and expression in Crowd, and the horseman’s attitude of aggression, wielding his mallet like a deadly weapon.)

Snow Dumpers (1911) with its centurion-like figure on a horse; Blue Snow the Battery (1910);  and other paintings and lithographs I encountered in Columbus, grabbed me by the throat.

Snow Dumpers

Snow Dumpers

The museum had an exhibit catalog on sale, published in 1979, George Wesley Bellows, Paintings, Drawings Prints. The exhibit had traveled from Columbus to the Virginia Museum in Richmond, the Des Moines Art Center, and the Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, MA. I looked at this book over and over. I still have it, but the glue has dried up, and the pages have come apart from the binding.

Blue Snow the Battery

Blue Snow the Battery

After my discovery of Bellows at the Columbus Museum of Art, I took every opportunity to see his work. I sought out Central Park, 1905 at the Faculty Club at Ohio State University. I saw Stag at Sharkeys at the Cleveland Museum and spent a long time staring at Love of Winter at the Art Institute of Chicago (The museum refused my heart-felt request to view My Mother, saying it was in storage and that was that). It was at a library at the University of Indiana, or it may have been Michigan State, where I sat for an hour or two reading through the 1928 Knopf edition of Bellows’ lithographs.

My Mother, 1921

My Mother, 1921

Sitting in the Skylight Inn in Columbus, Ohio on the evening of August 23rd, 1985, I wrote in my journal:

“I spoke with or at Everett Reese on the telephone the other day…I asked him if I could see River Rats, a Bellows painting he owns, and he said, ‘yeah, but I’m in and out so much, call me sometime. Interesting painting isn’t it?’

‘Yes’ I said, ‘I’d like to see it.’…”

I’ve left out an unkind word I scribbled then, because as an older and wiser man I understand that a wealthy collector might not want to open his house to an unknown person who has called him on the telephone. For all he knew I might have been scheming to blow a hole in his safe. But, I was impatient, and I wanted to see River Rats without having to wait six or seven months (or to observe a lot of formalities), which was when I planned to return to Columbus. River Rats was included in the 1979 exhibit catalog and identified Mr. Reese as its owner. It is also on loan to the Met Museum’s retrospective.

In those days my friend Alex Holzman, now the accomplished director of Temple University Press, was an innovative editor at Ohio State University Press, and my guide to the interesting places of Columbus, such as Thurber House, German Village, and others. No trip to Columbus was complete without a visit to his office that was, as I remember it, near a university cornfield and a gas station, or his house on Kelso Road in Clintonville.

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If it weren’t for Roberta Smith’s lengthy and well-illustrated review of the Bellows’ retrospective in the New York Times, I would probably not have known about it, and since I am still smarting from having missed an evening with Jean Bellows Booth, the artist’s daughter, at the Columbus Museum of Art many years ago, I am happy to have caught the news in time.

And, while I give thumbs up to Smith for favorably singling out the “three dark, enigmatic paintings of the excavation for Penn Station from 1907—9” (and for citing Carol Troyan’s catalog essay, Life by the River, 1908—1912), I find her condemnation of the exhibit as “unnecessarily disappointing” baffling and arbitrary.

“The Bellows conjured in the Met show” she continues, “comes across as a talented and ambitious yet complacent artist, earnest and hard-working but often remote, an artist who frequently failed to work from that crucial point where criticality and desperation forge ambition and skill into something indelibly personal and expandable.”

“…there is a good chance” she asserts, “you will emerge from it [the exhibit] starving for truly alive art. I sure did…”

She finds the show lacking because it did not include more of the “…increasingly visionary plein air oil panels of rocky coasts, landscapes and ramshackle farms that Bellows painted from 1911 on, first in Maine and hen in Woodstock, N.Y….There are also numerous larger works that might have improved the show…”

It is always sad beyond measure to read of starvation in a land of plenty. To say the show is a failure because it includes few landscapes is like reading a volume of Shakespeare’s plays and faulting the publisher for leaving out the sonnets. But to be fair, she believes that “…too many of the canvases fall short of being convincing…” In other words, Smith has seen his best work and baldly states she thinks he is no good. My point is the “visionary plein air oil panel” lament is really just an afterthought, thrown in so she can slightly modify the expression of her visceral dislike of this particular artist.

I agree with her that Bellows WW I paintings are “propagandistic,” and that his later efforts are no match for his earlier work, but I heartily disagree with her offhand opinion that “summery images of white-clad figures at leisure in Central Park or watching a polo match resemble illustrations for Vanity Fair…”

This latter remark strikes me as a snap judgment, an unkind reference to Bellows’ early artistic life as an illustrator, and taken together with her “failed…criticality and desperation…” conceit, I am guessing she dislikes the fact that Bellows was never regarded as an outsider, and perhaps was not sufficiently bohemian to suit her taste. I believe the “criticality and desperation” comment ought to join “soapsuds and whitewash” in the curious file of critical judgments that famously miss the point.

Smith’s opinion of Bellows echoes the views of his harshest critics, judgments gently refuted by George Brock in the exhibit catalog.

But these matters mean nothing to me, because I am strictly interested in the work.

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So, the retrospective catalog, together with the audio guide, open a wide window on Bellows’ work. Following are a few choice quotes from the audio guide, the text of which the museum was kind enough to send me:

1. “Bellows established a reputation for unflinching honesty. As a reviewer for the New York Daily Tribune put it in 1911: ‘He paints the city in undress.’ The reviewer went on to praise Bellows’s strong color and brushwork, “that in its swift force denotes the gesture of the athlete, not the athlete of the university gymnasium but the brawny roustabout of a New York wharf.”

2. “In 1908, a jury awarded Forty-Two Kids the prestigious Lippincott Prize at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. But at the last minute they reversed their decision. A reporter asked Bellows if he thought the jury was uncomfortable with his depiction of naked boys. Bellows responded, ‘No, it was the naked painting they feared.’”

3. “I am not interested in the morality of prize fighting,” Bellows remarked. “But let me say that the atmosphere around the fighters is a lot more immoral than the fighters themselves.”

4. “Like other Ashcan artists, Bellows captured aspects of New York’s emerging modernity. But he was especially fascinated by its dualities: the tension between old and new, nature and industry, upper and lower classes. No other artist chose the kinds of subjects Bellows did—construction sites, dirty snow, dockworkers. He succeeded in finding remarkable scenes that revealed the dynamic physical, social, and economic change the city was undergoing. And he combined this startling realism with innovative compositions and sensuous paint handling.”

5. “In 1904, two city blocks—8 acres—were demolished to make way for the new Pennsylvania Station, a magnificent Beaux-Arts building designed by the architects, McKim, Mead, and White. Bellows produced five paintings of the project, focusing on the excavation, not the elegant architectural result. The vast, empty pit must have been an awe-inspiring spectacle—it upstages everything in the surrounding city. The laborers and their machines, indicated by quick daubs of black paint, barely register. They could be mistaken for the rocks and mud that surround them.

“The massive project was promoted as a symbol of technological advancement and human triumph over nature. In paintings like this one, however, Bellows emphasizes the raw, empty earth itself. His slashing brushwork conveys its primal energy. One critic wrote that Bellows had made ‘a stark, harsh, ugly, and powerfully felt portrayal of the . . . great gaping wound in the dirty earth. It is a picture to make rosewater idealism shiver and evaporate. But it is real. It is truthfully painted.’ Once the majestic building was completed, this massive hole in the ground should have been forgotten. But Bellows’s paintings are tributes to the creation of the modern city.”

I am not sure I would describe them as “tributes,” but that’s my only quibble.

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Men of the Docks

Men of the Docks

Men of the Docks (1912), Carol Troyen tells us, “…is set on the far side of the East River, looking back at the tall buildings of lower Manhattan. The dark warehouses at left and the colossal ocean liner at right form forceful diagonals that converge on the city’s skyline, which appears luminous in the sun and mist. The image proclaims the city’s energy and achievement. But the group of longshoreman milling around in the immediate foreground presents a disconcerting counterpoint to the luxurious ocean liner they are waiting to unload…”

She also informs us that Longshoreman “were among the city’s least desired citizens” and, she says, “Bellows chose a relatively low vantage point, and the side of the ship is a massive wall, propelling the line of sight inexorably into the distance. The buildings across the water appear like a vision. Yet by showing one worker at far left about to walk off stage, and another with his back turned at the very bottom edge of the painting, Bellows brings the viewer into the group of longshoreman. The device creates an ironic distraction from the city of ambition in the distance, as if a photograph by Lewis Hine had been superimposed on one by Alfred Stieglitz.”

While the photographic analogy is strained, the mention of photography (and of “the stage”) is apt. Troyen’s eye is sharp, her outline of the painting’s elements superb. The painter does indeed bring us, perhaps not quite “into the group of longshoreman,” but alongside it, just as the steaming barge sits beside the ocean liner. The painting is animated by the human figures and the drama playing out among the men of the docks. The solitary figure in shadow at the canvas’s leftward edge holds a posture of shame. Most of the other men (and even the horses) appear to look beyond him at something surprising, perhaps appalling. Was he fired? Is he ill? The mystery presented by Bellows’ mise-en-scene in this and other works is riveting and, for me at least, when placed within the social and political context of his era, the source of his enduring power.

For me the question is always “what’s the matter?” What is playing out before our eyes?

And speaking of eyes, Robert Henri, Bellows’ mentor, says in his book The Art Spirit, “…In life one eye always dominates the observer. In painting this domination must persist.” On occasion Bellows took this one step further than Henri (if you look at Henri’s paintings and compare them with Bellows’ you will see what I mean), showing only one eye of his subject (the subject in profile) to express surprise or shock or as part of a caricature. You can see this clearly in The Men of the Docks.

You can also see the flesh-colored bollard about the size of a human head that separates the humiliated loner from the group suggesting (ironically of course) that these workmen are part of the very infrastructure that defines their work. The harnessed horses stand common ground alongside their human fellows. The horse with head held high bends his left leg slightly, just as the tallest man slightly bends his right. And in the midst of such a serious work Bellows’ sense of humor is evident in the anthropomorphic facial expression of that same horse.

“…In pictures” Henri says, “eyes should fascinate, arrest, haunt, question, be inscrutable, they should invite into depths. They should be remarkable…”

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Nearly every writer who has ever written about Bellows calls him “restless.” I would call him inspired and energetic, and if he was restless it was because he was anxious to put down all he saw and knew and felt about the human condition, the humor, the pathos, and the horror.

Art critics have been playing hide-and-seek around the human drama of these paintings, but they are getting warmer.

“…As he so often does” says David Park Curry, writing about Easter Snow (1915), “Bellows sets up interplaying glances among characters in the picture.” Critics of Bellows’ work would do well to note this observation.

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Curry describes the scene: “Despite the chilly weather, three rotund ladies clad in Easter-egg-colored silks toil up an icy path…The trio’s flimsy confections contrast with cold weather gear worn by other strollers…Lifting her skirts to avoid a puddle, the lead figure hunches forward on the path, glowering at two slim New Yorkers in long fur-trimmed coats who are walking a golden retriever. Positioned as witness figures that echo our own gaze, they wear no-nonsense fedoras instead of frivolous Easter bonnets, inviting viewers to share their amusement at the folly of Easter finery, just as Seurat mocked the pretensions of the well-dressed couple at the lower right of Grande Jatte.”

Missing from this cozy analysis is any mention of the three figures just below and to the right of the “rotund ladies.” Dressed in black, except for his ragged white collar, a young man stands against the black background of the park. Behind and below him, but clearly associated with him, is a woman and child. The woman appears to have no hat, the child is dressed in bright red, the color of alarm, a color that screams from the canvas so strongly does it contrast with the dominant blues and browns and white.

Thus, these three figures, suggesting want, provide an ironic contrast to the women who got caught outside without the proper clothing. To repeat Susan Schott’s words, these characters invite us to speculate. Is the young man asking for money? Are the “witness figures” offended by this request, or are they drawn by the clash in appearance between the ladies and the impoverished family?

The tall man in the black top hat, with his back turned towards the viewer and the poor, appears to be in company with the ladies, This is a complex picture indeed, and another painting in which the artist apparently included a likeness of himself. Bellows wears a brown coat (the same shade as the dog) and wears a hat similar in shape to that of the needy young man. As Bellows and his wife walk away from the scene, Emma looks back, another “witness figure.”

“In contrast” Curry says, “Love of Winter is filled with the sense of bonhomie that made Bellows a favorite among his fellow artists.”

Love of Winter

Love of Winter

But Curry is not the only critic blind to the content of what I regard as one of Bellows’ most dynamic, fascinating and successful works, an American masterpiece, if I am permitted to use such a hackneyed word. The retrospective’s audio tour describes Love of Winter (1914) as a “cheery scene of leisure…more typical of American Impressionism than of Bellows’s usual, grittier subjects. With rapid brushwork, he captures the skaters gliding across the pond and other charming vignettes: a mother takes her daughter’s hand, a man laces his skates, boys race across the ice…”

And here is how Love of Winter is described on the web page of the museum that owns it, the Art Institute of Chicago:

“In Love of Winter, Bellows captured the rapid movement of a crowd of skaters across a pond—like the Impressionists, he loved the pictorial challenges of painting snow in sunlight and shade. Although the foreground scene bears some resemblance to his contemporaneous views of Central Park, the mountainous background derives from another setting entirely, indicating that Bellows likely synthesized different views to produce the composition.”

So, this painting has often been described as a pleasant seasonal evocation, but let us go then you and I and turn a speculative eye on this mysterious scene enacted on a frozen pond in Central Park.

Three pairs of girls with their mothers or nannies dominate the fireground, people likely to be on an ice rink in Central Park. Above them towers a picturesque landscape of hills. Are these people having a wonderful time? The woman on the far left has her hand on the girl’s shoulder, and you can see from the girl’s attitude that something is wrong.

To the right of that pair is another little girl, dressed in red, and although we cannot see her face, she is looking at something, while her mother, who has turned her back to the pond, clasps the girl’s hand, trying to steer her away. But the girl’s body language says “look, mommy, look!”

What’s the matter? Does she behold a cheery scene of leisure and bonhomie?

No, she sees a violent skirmish and panic on the ice.

The figure in dark blue or black (a policeman perhaps), directly in line with the girl’s hat, is engaged in hand to hand combat with a man in white. The latter holds a weapon of some kind, a piece of iron, maybe a club. Just in front of the girl, and to her left, another man, at the edge of the ice and dressed in white with his back to us, is poised to enter the fray or flee.

Visible beneath the clasped hands of mother and daughter is a wide-eyed man, face and hat tinged with red. Whether he is warning the girl away, or looking past her for the arrival of help, makes no difference. His face expresses the urgency of the moment. He is part of a group of men, one of whom sits on the snow as he apparently laces up to join the fight.

Out on the ice, to the right of the mother whose back is turned towards the pond, a policeman with a nightstick painted white, is practicing crowd control. The figures of the women and children provide points of focus against the helter-skelter motions of the disheveled random figures on the ice, and the feel of a riot or crime scene is unmistakable.

The small girl in white on the right side of the canvas is clearly in distress and she seems to be accompanied by two women, one of whom is tending her. Behind the second woman, whose head is turned away from the pond, and almost at the very rightward edge of the painting, is the outline of another man wearing a glove and holding a stick, possibly another policeman.

As I imagined art historians and critics taking another look at Love of Winter, I thought of this passage about Louis Pasteur from The Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif, a book I read as a boy:

“…He watched them peevishly, he had an instinct they had no business there. There were processions of them hooked together like barges on the River Seine, strings of clumsy barges that snaked along. Then there were lonely ones that would perform a stately twirl now and again; sometimes they would make a pirouette and balance—the next moment they would shiver at one end in a curious kind of shimmy. It was all very interesting, these various pretty cavortings of these new beasts. But they had no business there!”

Charles Morgan, in his biography, George Bellows, Painter of America, quotes the music and art critic James Heneker, and here I have excerpted that quote: “For one thing he [Bellows]  is to be praised—he never sings the song of the oppressed. No pitying socialistic note spoils his virile art…labor is not precisely sacred, nor is it precisely a curse. It just happens, for mankind must eat, and in the sweat of his brow. Bellows shows the working man as he is.”

While Bellows’ art is not overtly political in any simplistic sense, to view his art as Heneker did is to miss the trenchant social and political dimension that makes his work astonishing, powerful and enduring. The enlightening and historic retrospective now about to close at the Met has gone way beyond Heneker’s view to give us a better appreciation of Bellows, but I believe the critics still have some miles to go. And it may be that George Brock and I disagree on this point, despite my epigraph quoting him, for to divorce Bellows from his kinship with William Glackens, George Luks and John Sloan, may serve to obscure the dimension I describe.

Perhaps in this time of violence, poverty, and a narrowing political sphere, universal blindness to the dramatic action of Bellows’ Love of Winter might serve as a metaphor for the paucity of contemporary American culture. In order to improve the state of our country, we must first recognize the violence and deprivation at its heart.

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