George Bellow’s depiction of his wife sitting at the piano entitled Emma at the Piano was completed in 1914. It is a beautiful portrayal of his wife, dressed in a rich blue coloured coat which along with the dark background adds to our awareness of the sense of intimacy of the scene. The depiction captures the moment when Emma has stopped playing and turns her gaze towards her husband as he paints her image. The painting belongs to the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk.
Just recently I have looked at paintings done by Rubens and Rembrandt of their wives. Thinking about it as a non-artist, I suppose there is logic behind an artist portraying his or her partner. In most cases the portrait done by the artist would be a labour of love and pride. I am returning to this theme in My Daily Art Display today when I look at the portraits George Bellows did of his wife Emma and their children.
George Wesley Bellows was an only child, born in Columbus, Ohio on August 12th 1882 to Anna and George Bellows. He was brought up in a conservative Methodist household with his mother’s sister Elinor, whom he called Aunt Fanny, and who would leave the family home to get married when George was eight years of age. Also living at home was his eighteen year old half-sister Laura, from his father’s first marriage. Laura would also leave to get married, when George was two years of age. This left him as the only child of the household. At the age of fifteen he attended the Central High School in Columbus where he excelled at sport. In the summer of 1900 George worked as an illustrator at the local Columbus Dispatch newspaper. The following fall, he enrols at Ohio State University where he studied English. It was here that his English professor, Joseph Taylor got him interested in the arts. Throughout his time at the university he continued his love of sport, playing both basketball and baseball. He regularly contributed drawings to the college publications and in his second year began to take art classes. In 1903 he receives a cash prize for his still life painting which was on display at the Ohio State Fair. The following year, 1904 was his graduation year but George failed to sit his final exams and left the university in the spring. During that summer he gains employment as a sports writer at two local newspapers, the Ohio State Journal and the Columbus Dispatch and again that year wins himself more money from his works of art which were displayed at that year’s Ohio State Fair. Although his mother who was devoutly religious and had always wanted George to become a minister in the church, he told his father that he wanted to go to New York, study art at the New York School of Art and become a professional artist. He even turned down the opportunity to become a professional baseball player. His father was supportive and gave him a $50 monthly allowance.
Emma in the Purple Dress was completed by Bellows in 1919 and can be found at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art
George Belows arrived in New York in September 1904 and took lodgings at the YMCA. He enrolled at the New York School of Art, which had originally been known as the Chase School of Art, so named after its director and founder was William Merritt Chase, the American Impressionist painter. It was at this establishment he first met his charismatic art tutor and one of the most influential teachers of the time, the painter, Robert Henri. Henri would become the leading figure of the artistic group known as The Eight and a prominent member of the Ashcan School of American Realist painters. It was Henri that roused his students to move away from the genteel scenes which were common in art and favoured by the establishment, such as the National Academy of Design. Henri urged them to look towards depicting more rugged and harsh cityscapes in their paintings. It was a plea for them to look towards modernity and realism in their art. Bellows took up the challenge and many of his works at the time depicted vast public transportation projects such as the building of the Pennsylvania Railroad Station and the Queensboro Bridge which spans the East River in New York.
However the most important person George Bellows met when he arrived at the art school was a fellow student, Emma Louise Story. Emma was two years younger than George and was the daughter of William Edward Story, a successful New Jersey linen and lace merchant, and Catherine Elizabeth Story (née Anderson). George and Emma soon became great friends and that Christmas George spent Christmas in the Story household in Upper Montclair, New Jersey. George Bellows continued to love playing sport and in the summer of 1905 played semi-professional baseball in Brooklyn.
George Wesley Bellows and Emma Louise Story married on September 23rd 1910 at St George’s Episcopal Church in the Bronx. This close and loving partnership brought Bellows a renewed interest in portraiture, especially family portraiture and this love would remain with him for the rest of his life. Bellows was very much in love with his wife and in a letter to her, he wrote:
“…Can I tell you that your heart is in me and your portrait is in all my work? What can a man say to a woman who absorbs his whole life?…”
His love for his wife was equalled by his love for his children. George and Emma had two daughters, Anne and Jean. Anne was born on September 8th 1911 and Jean was born on April 23rd 1915. For an artist who gave the world paintings depicting the harshness of city life, the brutality of the boxing ring and the atrocities of war, he could also depict a charming tenderness in his portraiture, especially those featuring his children as he witnessed their journey through youth. One such work was completed in 1920 entitled Anne in White, which featured his eight year old daughter Anne, and is housed in the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. This painting measuring 134cms x 109cms has the young girl sitting in a small rocking chair. Her left hand falls to her side clutching the brim of her dark blue hat with its long ribbon trailing out before her. Her young face is framed by the thick locks of her hair. Her posture is one of grace and elegance. Her eyes have the darkness which Bellows frequently used in his portraiture. Bellows had delightfully and skilfully captured his young daughter’s look of innocence. In her right hand she holds a highly-coloured fan on her lap. Her position in the painting is midway between a background consisting of a heavy curtain on the left and a window through which we observe a verdant spectacle of nature on the right. It is a juxtaposition of domesticity as denoted by the drapery and liberty offered by the outside world.
In that same year, 1920, Bellows completed another portrait which featured his daughter Anna. It was group family portrait entitled Elinor, Jean and Anna. This work by Bellows is now considered to be one of the most accomplished group portraits in modern art. In Charles Hill Morgan’s 1965 book George Bellows, Painter of America, he quotes art critics as saying:
“…[Bellows] has lifted portraiture out of the status of a mere profession, and conferred upon it a genuinely aesthetic distinction…”
At the centre of the group sits the petite figure of his eight year old daughter, Anna in her white dress with its starkly contrasting wide black sash wrapped tightly around her waist. In front of her, open on her lap, is an art book. On either side of her, and in total contrast to this diminutive figure of his daughter, sits monumental figures dressed in black. These two elderly ladies are attired in widows’ garb. On the left is Elinor, Bellows’ Aunt Fanny, who was at the time was in her early eighties. She had lived with Bellows and his parents when he was young and had fostered in him an interest in art. Bellows always remembered those early years living with Elinor. Her left hand lies palm-upwards , laid out directing us to look at the young girl and the art book with its still-life picture of a flower. It is as if Elinor is inviting us to join the group or it could be that Bellows wanted there to be a connection in the painting between Elinor and the art book to remind himself that it was Elinor who had first nurtured in him his love for art. Bellows always remembered with great fondness his early days living at home with Elinor. In a letter to his cousin, Laura Daggett, he wrote:
“…Aunt Fanny will always remain to me a beautiful and important vision of my babyhood. It gives me a great sensation to have her bring to me a drawing which I had made as a little kid…”
On the right of the portrait is Anna, George Bellows’ mother, who was in her late seventies. The work is in some ways a connection between the old and young of Bellows generation with the artist being the conduit between the two generations.
My final offering is Bellows’ portrait of his younger daughter, Jean which he completed in 1924 entitled Lady Jean, and which is now housed in the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven. This was to be Bellows’ last major portrait of a family member. In the work we see his nine year old daughter Jean dressed in a nineteenth century Southern costume with its long frilled skirt that forms a slight train. The dress had been given to her mother, who used to lend it to her children when they wanted to dress up. The neckline and cuffs of the old-fashioned pale-blue dress are enhanced by ribbons. On her head Jean wears a black hat with its veil retracted. Her right hand is covered with a lace mitt, whilst the other mitt dangles from her left hand which also clutches a small purse. Jean’s love of dressing up and performing before her parents led her to eventually become an actress, appearing on Broadway opposite such stars as the great Helen Hayes.
George Bellows was suddenly taken ill at his studio in New York on January 2nd 1925. He was rushed to hospital where it was diagnosed that he was suffering from a ruptured appendix and he was immediately operated on. Sadly on January 8th he died of peritonitis, aged forty-two. It was said that he died at the height of his fame and prowess as a painter but this, in some ways, is demeaning and suggests he had reached his best but who is to know to what artistic heights he would have risen to had he lived longer. I recently returned for a second visit to an exhibition of his work at London’s Royal Academy and I was taken by his words which were printed in large letters on the wall at the exit. They came from motivational words he had once offered his students just a few years before his death. To them he said:
Try it every possible way.
Be deliberate. Be spontaneous.
Be thoughtful and painstaking.
Be abandoned and Impulsive intellectual and inspired, calm and temperamental.
Learn your own Possibilities