Favorite Son

Columbus celebrates the talent of artist George Bellows.

If he were alive today, it’s a sure bet that George Bellows would be a regular in the stands at Ohio State University football and basketball games.

While the Columbus native was heralded for his unrivaled ability to observe and paint the early 19th-century world around him, no starving artist or brooding, tortured soul was he. In fact, biographers note, Bellows was a regular guy who liked sports, knew how to use a hammer, enjoyed vaudeville shows, made friends easily and adored his wife and daughters.

Although the artist attained worldwide renown as a modern art pioneer, he maintained ties to his hometown, visited his parents and painted portraits of prominent citizens, including William Oxley Thompson, Ohio State’s president from 1899 to 1925.  

The accolades are well-deserved. In fact, Bellows led two American art transformations — one in subject matter, the other in lithography — which the Columbus Museum of Art and Keny Galleries are celebrating in fine fashion.

Through Jan. 4, the CMA exhibit, “George Bellows and the American Experience,” showcases more than 35 paintings, prints and drawings. “It covers the entire arc of his career,” says Melissa Wolfe, CMA curator of American art.

And yet, while demonstrating Bellows’ virtuosity and versatility, the show also affirms Columbus’ abiding appreciation for its homegrown genius. In 1911, the Columbus Art Association (a CMA forerunner) purchased Bellows’ painting, “Polo at Lakewood.” His rendering of a polo game’s organized chaos, featured in the current exhibit, was the first acquisition in the museum’s outstanding Bellows collection, which today is the largest – and arguably finest – in the world.

On Sept. 27, a second Columbus show featuring Bellows opens at Keny Galleries in German Village. “Columbus Artists at the Forefront of Modernism (1907–1917),” through Nov. 15, includes examples of Bellows’ celebrated lithographs, along with watercolors by Alice Schille and woodcuts by Edna Boies Hopkins.

“Since all three artists have ties to Columbus,” explains gallery co-owner James M. Keny, “we thought it would be nice to present something that complements the CMA exhibit.”

Born in Columbus in 1882, George Wesley Bellows was the only child of a staunchly Republican building contractor and his devoutly Methodist wife. He grew up comfortably middle class on East Rich Street, attended a high school his father had constructed, and enrolled at Ohio State in 1901. Bellows blossomed into a big man on campus. He did drawings for university publications, joined Beta Theta Pi fraternity and played varsity basketball and baseball. Bellows was such a good shortstop that the Cincinnati Reds recruited him, but at the end of his junior year he conveniently skipped his final exams and informed his perturbed parents that he going to New York City to study art.

Taken with the idealized images of womanhood popularized by Charles Dana Gibson, Bellows intended to become a magazine illustrator. That plan vanished when he met Robert Henri, the painter-teacher who steered Bellows away from drawing Gibson Girls to painting scenes from everyday life. Regarding his “sheer luck” in meeting Henri, Bellows wrote, “My brains were as innocent as a college could make them. My life begins at this point. The rest is legend.”

Bellows also had the good fortune to be coming of age along with the nation itself, which the Spanish-American War had thrust onto the world stage. During 1903, the last year Bellows spent in Columbus, fellow Ohioans Orville and Wilbur Wright invented the first airplane; the first cross-country automobile trip took place; and Boston beat Pittsburgh in the first World Series. When Columbus got its first railroad in 1850, just 32 years before the artist was born, only six American cities possessed more than 100,000 people; by the time Bellows boarded his train for New York, 38 metropolises swelled from Atlantic to Pacific. A different America was emerging, and Bellows recognized that the burgeoning nation’s vitality, impatience and exploding immigrant population were condensed on New York’s teeming streets.

A consummate draftsman and painter, Bellow embraced Henri’s dictum to depict reality — the side of the city seen in back alleys and slums — and made it his own with bravura brushwork and an unflinching eye.  “Bellows was strong-minded about what fine art was,” notes Wolfe. “He thought anything at all was an appropriate subject.” Unlike the sunny perspective and genteel subjects of mainstream Impressionists, Bellows painted street urchins, tenements and construction sites. Extolling the common man, his raw but lush canvases epitomized the aspirations of the Ashcan School artists and provoked the transition from Victorian to modern art.

Bellows also had a lasting impact on lithography, which newspapers and magazines in the late 1800s routinely used to produce illustrations. Bellows translated his drawing skills into sharply expressive prints that elevated it from a commercial medium. “The years 1907 to 1917 were a golden decade when Bellows evolved into an accomplished lithographer,” says Keny. “He was central to reinventing lithography as a major art form.” At the Keny Galleries, Bellows’ compelling “Splinter Beach” pictures cavorting kids in a powerful, turbulent city, and “I Remember Being Initiated Into the Frat” is a major CMA drawing of outlandish hazing rituals that Bellows later made into a lithograph.

The CMA show is especially exciting because it includes Bellows works owned by private collectors as well as other museums. Perhaps the most recognizable painting is “Stag at Sharkey’s” from the Cleveland Museum of Art, one of the many frenzied portrayals of boxers that Bellows did early in his career when prizefighting was illegal in New York. His brutal renditions of those illicit, bloody struggles put Bellows, as one contemporary commentator observed “in a class by himself.”

Also exhibited are less spontaneous, more conventional paintings that reveal how Bellows increasingly turned to the Old Masters for artistic direction. “Dr. William Oxley Thompson” (from The Ohio State University Libraries) is an august full-length likeness of the academic that won the National Academy of Design’s best portrait prize in 1914, while 1924’s tautly composed “Mr. and Mrs. Phillip Wase” (from the Smithsonian American Art Museum) delivers a discerning commentary on old age and relationships.

Not long after completing the Wase painting, Bellows died from appendicitis in January 1925. Though he was only 42, his work was so prolific and profound that the Museum of Modern Art organized a memorial retrospective later that year. At that exhibit, a teary-eyed Robert Henri provided a telling epitaph when he said to Bellows’ widow, “I always gave him my most severe criticism because I thought he was my best pupil. Now I am sure of it.”

Columbus Museum of Art
480 E. Broad St., Columbus 43215, 614/221-6801, columbusmuseum.org
Hours: Tues.–Sun. 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m.; Thur. 10 a.m.–8:30 p.m.
Admission: $12, seniors and students 18 and older $8, students 6–17 $5; free admission on Sun.

Keny Galleries
300 E. Beck St., Columbus 43206, 614-464-1228, kenygalleries.com
Hours: Mon.–Fri. 10 a.m.–6 p.m.