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Essay by John Wilmerding, PhD

Despite a career prematurely ended by acute appendicitis in 1925, George Bellows was arguably America's strongest realist painter in the first quarter of the twentieth century. His art serves as a worthy bridge between that of Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins in the later nineteenth century, and of Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth in the mid-twentieth century. For all the energies of his subject matter and brushwork, however, he was outpaced by the new accelerations of modern life and art. His career coincided with the development of motion pictures, the automobile, the airplane, Futurism, Einstein's Theory of Relativity and early rocket propulsion. All of these in different ways forever altered human understanding and experience of the natural world. Born in Columbus, Ohio, where his talent as an athlete almost led him into professional baseball, he returned throughout his painting career to vigorous sporting images: boxing, polo, and tennis. Although many of these showed figures in action, painted with a sense of the immediate moment, with vigorous brushstrokes and often new experimental theories of color, Bellows and a number of his contemporaries never fully grasped the profound new expressions of space, time and movement of this century. 

During this turbulent period, which culminated with the outbreak of World War 1, Bellows created a consistently personal and powerful body of art, largely centered on the human figure as a forceful physical or emotional presence. A warm-hearted family man, he was at his best painting relatives and friends. He moved to New York City just after the turn of the century, and was drawn into the circle of Robert Henri's friends and students. His earliest subjects are firmly in the Ashcan manner, ordinary city types painted quickly and in generally dark colors. Two circumstances had a critical impact on the development of his art: in 1911Bellows spent his first summer on Monhegan Island off the Maine Coast, and two years later the Armory Show introduced the upheavals of European artistic modernism to New York and America. On the bold and isolated Maine island he found some of his starkest subjects in the formidable cliffs and churning surf, which he painted over the next few years with an eye to his famous Maine predecessor, Winslow Homer. To his portraits at this time he also brought Homer's example of strong brushwork and reductive form.