River Rats, 1906, oil on canvas, 30 1/2 x 38 1/2 in. Image from Artist Portfolio Magazine.
George Bellows arrived in New York City in 1904 from Columbus, Ohio; he was a young man of twenty-two, come to study art with Robert Henri at the New York School of Art. The city he found, the city he painted, was energetic, changing, building, buzzing with people of all classes. The excitement in his early New York paintings is palpable, and I was very happy to see them at a recent exhibition of his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The word that kept coming to my mind about these paintings was "muscular": the paint was broadly and confidently handled, a perfect pairing of technique and subject matter. Although I no longer live in NYC, I still consider myself a New Yorker; I still love sitting on the subway with all the different kinds of people, love walking the crowded streets; the sense of constant change is always there, even if the change is often unwelcome. So much of the city is about reinvention that I have a feeling of nostalgia for early New York City, and these paintings certainly satisfy that craving. In River Rats, groups of children have made their way down to the East River to swim; they are dwarfed by a monumental cliff, buildings rising above it. I look at that huge cliff and wonder where in the world that might have been, since there's nothing like that in Manhattan now. According to the blog Ephemeral New York, it might have been in the east 20s, the old Gashouse District, or Dutch Hill in the east 40s and 50s, where Tudor City now stands.
Pennsylvania Excavation, 1907; oil on canvas, 33 7/8 x 44 in.
(all images from Metropolitan Museum of Art website, unless noted.)
Bellows did several paintings of the construction of Pennsylvania Station, a huge undertaking at the time. In looking at his paintings, during a dark afternoon in snowy winter...
Pennsylvania Station Excavation, 1907-08; oil on canvas, 31 3/16 x 38 1/4 in.
(from the Brooklyn Museum collection)
...or in the early evening, we get a sense of tremendous power being expended as smoke billows and fires burn, and as workers are dwarfed by the enterprise. The grand aboveground Penn Station, designed by McKim, Mead, and White, was, in its turn, sadly demolished in 1963.
Rain on the River, 1908; oil on canvas, 32 x 38 in.
A view of Riverside Park, which was not completed until 1910, shows industry alongside the green of leisure spaces. Lusciously painted foreground rocks, feeling present and heavy from the artist's rich touch, overlook a white curve of path, white billowing locomotive smoke, the river greenish in the hazy distance.
Blue Snow, The Battery, 1910; oil on canvas, 34 x 44 in.
Bellows painted another of Manhattan's parks, The Battery at the lower end of Manhattan. Figures and trees are brief marks of dark paint against the white expanse of snow; here again, smoke rises, reminding us of the working aspects of the city.
Beach at Coney Island, 1908; oil on canvas, 42 x 60 in.
I grew up only a couple of miles from Coney Island, whose name still has an allure of beach and amusements. What must Coney have been like in early days! Bellows gives us an idea: of crowds and brightly colored awnings, and romantic couples, all in glaring sun.
Paddy Flannigan, 1908; oil on canvas, 30 1/4 x 25 in.
The exhibition also contained some marvelous portraits, such as this one of a tough, insouciant street kid; Bellows has given Flannigan dignity and power that he likely did not possess in his life.
New York, 1911; oil on canvas, 42 x 60 in.
New York City can still seem as busy, as teeming with people and vehicles, though not with work horses, as it did 100 years ago. Bellows's New York, though vanished, is still familiar.