Friday, September 28, 2012

Fine Arts Friday: George Bellows: An Ashcan Classicist

The Cliff Dwellers, 1913

If you live in the vicinity of Washington, D.C., you have til October 8 to see the exhibition of paintings by American Ashcan artist, George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925) at the National Gallery of Art. It is well worth the visit. Although Bellows is best known for his paintings of boxers in action, I found the most arresting of his paintings to be three portraits of children. Early in his career Bellows was encouraged by his New York City teacher, Robert Henri, to paint ordinary people, including children. Henri himself traveled every year to Ireland, where he painted portraits of poor Irish children. None of Henri's Irish portraits that I have seen, however, measure up to Bellows' portrayals of three children in the National Gallery exhibition.

All three are formal portraits and appear to incorporate a study of portraits of princes and princesses by Velasquez, Goya, and Titian. All three, despite their lower-ranking subjects, are bigger than life size, giving the portraits a monumental quality.

Here is Frankie, the Organ Boy.

Frankie, the Organ Boy, 1907

Frankie appears to be a charming, fun-loving boy, who is thrilled to have his portrait painted. He makes his living on the streets and his body is posed in a way that looks like he is raring to go for any venture that might come his way. But he is framed in formality--dark suit, a tie, a somewhat formalized pose, sitting on a dark chair, with a dark background. The formality and his charming expression almost seem at odds, but the way that Bellows has situated Frankie also gives him dignity. The chair in particular reminded me of Edward Steichen's famous photograph of J.P. Morgan, taken in 1903, where the light shining on the chair arm makes it seem like the enraged Morgan has a knife in his hand. I wonder if Bellows knew this portrait and put Frankie in the same setting, to highlight the wide difference in function and in character between the two, or if his viewers at the time also related Frankie the Organ Boy to the Morgan portrait?

 J. P. Morgan, photograph by Edward Steichen

The poignancy of Frankie's cheerful face and what it reveals of his character also brought to mind  Titian's great portrait of the 11-year-old Ranuccio Farnese, part of the National Gallery's permanent collection. In Titian's great painting, also life size, the boy's tender face sharply contrasts with his heavy clothes, medals, and insignias, all signifying the necessity for him to enter into the future that his wealth and privilege dictate. Frankie, on the other hand, seems ready to go get his own future.

Ranuccio Farnese by Titian, 1542

Bellows' Paddy Flannigan captures the young boy tough, his psychological pain hidden behind a mask of belligerence that he flaunts, along with his bare chest and shoulders, for the viewer--that is, the painter. We expect that any minute now he will pick up a cigarette and start smoking to prove his loss of childhood. We see this type of boy in many of the crowd scenes that Bellows painted of New York--Beach at Coney Island (1908), Forty-Two Kids (1907), Kids (1906), The Cliff-Dwellers (see above), River Front No. 1 (1915). Here though the emphasis is on the character of the boy not the social environs that produced it.

Paddy Flannigan, 1908

The last portrait is of the laundry girl in Bellows' residence. Here is the stance of a princess--isolated, standing at three-quarter view, patiently waiting for the formal rendering of her being. It takes seeing this portrait close up, though, to see her extreme vulnerability, in her scrawny little neck, the shyness bordering on fright in her eyes, her sharp little chin, and her sideways glance at the painter. She seems already dubious of her future, which can only bring more hard physical labor.

Little Girl in White, also known as Queenie Burnett, 1907. This painting is quite large, covering nearly the wall in its height.

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