A few years back, the early-20th-century painter George Bellows – who lived and worked summers in Woodstock during the final years of his short, 42-year life – rose to the top of great American and modern artists when a little-known work sold for a hefty sum at auction, collecting nearly $27 million from an anonymous purchaser.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City just opened its first comprehensive retrospective of Bellows’ work in nearly half a century. It presents the artist as a man of his times, a pursuer of truth and new processes to depict what he observed and believed, via 120 paintings and lithographs arranged thematically and chronologically into such areas as “New York, 1905-1908,” “Boxers and Portraits, 1907-1909,” “Penn Station and the Hudson River, 1907-1909,” “Work and Leisure, 1910-16,” “The Sea, 1911-17,” “Bellows’ Process, 1912-16,” “The War, 1918,” “Bellows’ Process, 1916-23,” “Family and Friends, 1914-19” and “Late Works, 1920-24.”
Born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, where he dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player, Bellows eventually made his way to New York to study painting under the great Robert Henri, who influenced much of the burgeoning Woodstock artists’ colony scene of the early 20th century. Bellows became known for his depictions of the City, including his epochal studies of boxers in action – a theme to which he would return throughout his career.
He began coming to Woodstock after World War I, which drew from him a series of emotionally wrought paintings and lithographs about the horrors of war. Here, nestled into a home still referred to as his off Rock City Road, Bellows spent time with his beloved wife Emma and their children, as well as close friends amongst the local painters, including the great Edward Speicher. Bellows finished monumental works started elsewhere, but also painted landscapes of his house, loomed over by Overlook Mountain, and his family, seated in a parlor as if awaiting death.
Not seen here, but haunting anyone who knows Bellows’ work, are some final pieces capturing the late summer scene around Woodstock, including one of a home surrounded by autumnal mountains, with an open cellar looking for all intents and purposes like an open grave. The artist passed away from a ruptured appendix on January 8, 1925.
Bellows was one of those rare artists beloved by his peers, his family and those who simply knew him as a fellow New Yorker, another summer Woodstocker. ”Above all else Geo was a vivid person and one not easily forgotten. He left the imprint of his personality on any person, group or community that he was associated with,” wrote his fellow artist and Woodstock neighbor Charles Rosen of the man. “He had great enthusiasms for people – they could be, and were – the village carpenter – the man who ran the garage – the boys with whom he played baseball or almost any ‘individual’ and he could and did go to bat for them on many an occasion.”
That this show captures that sense of the man, as well as the depths of his artistry, is a major achievement. It stays up through the middle of February. See this show if you care about this town.
George Bellows at the Met, in the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Exhibition Hall, through February 18, 2013; www.metmuseum.org.