The War Series by George Bellows

Massacre at Dinant by George Bellows (1918)
Massacre at Dinant by George Bellows (1918)

Another exhibition I recently attended whilst in London was one which showcased some of the works by the influential American realist painter, George Bellows.  To me, before I saw this collection of his work, the art of George Bellows was all about his wonderful boxing match scenes and the haunting look at the Pennsylvania Station excavation in New York so I was delightfully surprised by the amazing variety of his works, which were on view.  Today I want to look at a series of paintings and lithographs he completed in 1918, which highlighted German atrocities in the First World War.   Some of these works were on display at the Royal Academy exhibition.  The paintings, when they were first exhibited, shocked the people who saw them and the series caused some controversy, which I will talk about later.

The story behind his War Series paintings was of the German invasion of Belgium during the First World War and depicted some of the atrocities carried out by the invading German troops.  The Belgian town of Dinant, which lies on the Meuse River, was overrun by the German Third Army, led by Lieutenant General Baron Max Klemens von Hausen on August 23rd 1914.  Dinant fell to the German invaders but according to German reports some of the German soldiers, whilst repairing a bridge in the town, were fired upon by locals.  A swift and bloody retribution followed.  The German troops rounded up 612 local residents in the main town square.  This group consisted of men women and children.  In the double Pullitzer Prize Winner, Barbara Tuchman’s 1963 book The Guns of August, she wrote that among those executed that day was Felix Fivet, aged just three weeksold.  The town was then ransacked by the occupying army.

Unlike how it is nowadays, there were no television crews following the battle to send back live feeds of the war with all its brutality.  There were no newspaper pictures of the massacre of Dinant, so how did Bellows and the world hear about this horrific event?  A month after the atrocities in Dinant, the Belgian Government put out three reports on German war crimes committed during the invasion of their country.   The contents of these reports shocked all those who read them and in Britain both Parliament and the newspapers clamoured for an independent British commission to be set up to investigate the atrocities.  The British Prime Minister at the time, Herbert Asquith, bowed to public opinion and set up an inquiry.  In December 1914, James Bryce was asked to chair what was termed, the “German Outrages Inquiry Committee”, which would look into all material and take witness statements appertaining to the massacre of Belgium citizens and to the complicity of the German officers into the behaviour of their troops during the summary executions of civilians.  James Bryce, 1st Viscount Bryce, was a British academic, historian and Liberal politician and had been, from 1907 to 1913, the British Ambassador to the United States of America and was on friendly terms with the then Presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

The report of the Committee was published on May 12th 1915 and the conclusion was that atrocities had been committed by the German army in order to strike terror into the civil population which would, in turn, dishearten the Belgian troops.  The Germans believed that it would quash resistance and extinguish the very spirit of self-defence. The Commission also stated that the German report of the townsfolk firing on German troops was simply used to justify the murder of large numbers of innocent civilians.   However, there was one problem with the compiling of the Commission’s report and this was the documenting of the 1200 eye witness accounts which had been correlated by a team of English lawyers.  A large number of these were excluded as the committee were mindful that their findings had to be reliable, credible and truthful.   For that to happen, the Committee stated that many of the depositions collected had to be omitted, although they were probably true, as they believed that it was much safer not to place reliance on them.   The committee ended their report by concluding:

“…Our function is ended when we have stated what the evidence establishes, but we may be permitted to express our belief that these disclosures will not have been made in vain if they touch and rouse the conscience of mankind, and we venture to hope that as soon as the present war is over, the nations of the world in council will consider what means can be provided and sanctions devised to prevent the recurrence of such horrors as our generation is now witnessing…”

The report was translated into many languages and circulated throughout the world.   Some later historians believed that the Bryce Commission report was a piece of propaganda and that the lurid accounts of German atrocities were designed to bolster the resolve of those already fighting in the war and to encourage those countries, including the powerful USA, to end their neutrality.

America had declared its neutrality in 1914 with Woodrow Wilson making his speech to the nation on August 18th 1914.  In the speech he said:

“…I venture therefore my fellow countrymen to speak a solemn word of warning to you against that deepest, most subtle, most essential breach of neutrality which may spring out of partisanship, out of passionately taking sides.   The United States must be neutral in fact as well as in name during these days that are to try men’s souls.  We must be impartial in thought as well as action, must put a curb on our sentiments as well as upon every transaction that might be construed as a preference of one party to the struggle before another…”

The United States of America finally gave up its stance of neutrality in April 1917.

So what has this report to do with the George Bellow paintings?  The answer is that Bellows based the depictions in his paintings on the Bryce Commission report.   In 1918 Bellows created a series of works, known as his War Series, depicting German war atrocities in order to stir outrage and embolden America in World War I.   The set consisted of five large paintings, which were his largest works ever completed.   Besides these oil paintings he also completed 20 lithographs and 42 drawings about the Great War.   At the time war paintings tended to focus on the heroic victors and glory in battles won and so Bellow’s War Series was a complete turnaround and many found them offensive.

Another artist, Francisco de Goya, a century earlier, had produced works highlighting the brutality of war.  In all he completed eighty-two etchings between 1810 and 1820 but,for political reasons, they were never exhibited until 1863, some thirty-five years after Goya’s death.  They depicted not only the atrocities of the French army which had invaded Spain but the inhuman treatment men inflicted on their fellow men.  Prints of these works by Goya would have been on display at galleries in New York and it is very likely that George Bellows would have seen them.

One Can't Look by Francisco de Goya (1863)
One Can’t Look by Francisco de Goya (1863)

In Bellow’s work, Massacre at Dinant, we see the foreground is littered with the dead bodies of women and children.  In the background we see the skies darken at the moment of death.  In the centre of the painting we see the clergy with their arms stretched aloft beseeching an end to the killings.  Their pleas fall on deaf ears and they are powerless to prevent the massacre.  It is a brutal depiction and horrifies all who stand before it. Although Bellows has not depicted any German soldiers in the painting, if one looks to the far left of the work one can see their bloody bayonets and rifles appearing on the scene.   This depiction of the “approaching” rifles could be taken directly from one of Goya’s lithographs entitled One Can’t Look (No se puede mirar), in which we see the bayoneted rifles just coming into the right hand side of the etching.

The Barricade by George Bellows (1918)
The Barricade by George Bellows (1918)

Another painting from his War Series was entitled The Barricade, in which we see a line of naked human beings, arms held aloft, acting as human shields for the uniformed German soldiers, with their guns raised, who stand and crouch behind them.   As a propaganda piece it worked well evoking both pity and rage in the mind of the viewer.  The message to the American public was clear – can we stand by and let this kind of thing happen or should we join the battle and end such atrocities.

Return of the Useless by George Bellows (1918)
Return of the Useless by George Bellows (1918)

In his painting Return of the Useless, Bellows depicted Germans soldiers unloading sick and disabled labour-camp prisoners from a rust-red boxcar.   These were Belgian citizens who were being returned home as they were no longer physically fit to work for the Germans.   Box-cars were familiar sights on the American railroads but this work depicted the box-car as a transport system for German prisoners.    Look how Bellows has cleverly used the same colour, red, for the rusty box-car as he used for the flushed face of the German soldier who is venting his anger on the fallen and cowering man and the bloodied skin of some of the prisoners.  Cast your eyes towards the interior of the box car.  Here we see an elderly man supporting a young female who is on the point of collapse.  Another woman sits on the floor her arms wrapped around a child.  A young woman is stepping out of the boxcar and her arms are raised in horror as she watches the German guard bring down the butt of his rifle on to the fallen man, who pathetically looks up and begs for mercy.

The Germans Arrive by George Bellows (1918)
The Germans Arrive by George Bellows (1918)

The Germans Arrive, another painting in the series, was based on an actual account from the Bryce Commission and gruesomely illustrated  a German soldier restraining a young Belgian teenager whose hands had just been severed.   This and the other paintings in the series suffered much criticism accusing Bellows of taking liberties when capturing on canvas, the horrific scenes of war. One notable detractor was the American artist and author,  Joseph Pennell, who argued that because Bellows had never been at the battlefront and therefore had not witnessed at first hand the events he painted, he forfeited the right to paint them. Bellows responded sarcastically that he had not been aware that the great Leonardo da Vinci “had a ticket of admission to the Last Supper”.

The final painting in his War Series is entitled Murder of Edith Cavell.   Edith Cavell was head of the Training School for Nurses in occupied Brussels.

Murder of Edith Cavell by George Bellows (1918)
Murder of Edith Cavell by George Bellows (1918)

On August 5th 1915, she was arrested for assisting Belgian, British, and French soldiers to escape from the country. Two months later, she was shot by the German authorities. News of her execution spread round the world, and in October of that year, The New York Times published 41 stories and her case became a cause célèbre.   George Bellows included this incident in a series of 12 lithographs and one full scale painting for his War Series.    In 1959 the Princeton University Art Museum found and acquired Bellow’s finished, full-size drawing (53.5 x 68.5 cm.) for this print. It is interesting to note that Bellows did not complete the oil painting of the scene until after he had finished the full scale drawing and lithograph print.  The painting now belongs to the Springfield Art Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts.

The work depicts a dark and somewhat chaotic prison cell with its grates and bars covering the windows and door.   We see on the flight of stairs leading down to the room the angelic figure of Cavell, dressed in white with her hand to her breast, enacting the classic gesture of humility.  Behind her and to the left, on a landing, we can see some soldiers and a priest clutching his bible. At the foot of the stairs there are more soldiers, one of whom holds a sword.   On the floor in the foreground we see some wounded prisoners lying on the floor guarded by soldiers in the left foreground.

George Bellow’s War Series paintings and lithographs, which he completed in the summer of 1918 whilst he was residing at his home in Middletown, Rhode Island, were ambitious in nature in the beloved tradition of grand manner history works.  His intention was to stir up both the public’s outrage and sympathy.  However the credibility of the images depicted in these paintings went hand in hand with the credibility of the Bryce Commission Report and that was to be called into question after the war had ended.  Many of the reports of German atrocities were then looked upon as merely Allied propaganda, simply designed to bolster the resolve of those Allied nations which were participating in the war and to encourage those nations to commit to the war effort , which up until then, had preferred to remain neutral,   Later, many Americans believed that their country had been tricked and manipulated into joining the conflict and unfortunately for George Bellows he and his War Series were regarded as part of this deception.  In 1925, the American art critic and historian, Virgil Barker commented on the series saying:

“…[they were] ill-judged in their appeal to the passion of hatred as anything produced in America’s most hysterical war years…”

However I will close with a more favourable comment on the War Series.  The art critic G.D.Cotton saw the initial exhibition and wrote about the works in the American Art News in September 1918.  He commented:

“…[the works] are brutal, full of horror, but reeking with truth, which adds to their poignancy.   After one has recovered from the shock of the subject themselves one sees that the pictures are full of strange beauty, conceived in bigness of vision that is rare and inspiring.  The whole exhibition is one to stiffen the spines of the enlisted men who are here and make them realize what they face ‘Over There’…

I can sincerely recommend you go and see the George Bellows exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London which runs until June 9th 2013.  See what you make of these War Series paintings and lithographs and at the same time, take in many of Bellow’s other beautiful works.

McSorley’s Bar by John Sloan

McSorley's Bar by John Sloan (1912)

I have looked at many paintings which have featured inns and taverns but they have been mainly been depictions of rural scenes with peasants in the Netherlands and Flanders and were painted by the Dutch and Flemish painters centuries ago.  Today, for a change, I am looking at a genre painting of a tavern scene but this is not really a tavern, more what we British would call a pub or Americans would term a bar or a saloon.  The title of the painting is McSorley’s Bar and was painted by the American artist John French Sloan.  Sloan was originally a member of a group of artists who had the strange collective name of The Eight and later he became a leading figure in the Ashcan School of realist artists.  I have featured works by these artists in earlier blogs and if you enter either Ashcan School or Robert Henri or George Bellows into the “Search” function at the right of this blog it will give you a little bit of history about these artist groups.

John French Sloan was born in New York in 1871.  His father James had had an interest in art, but as only as a hobby but he did encourage his children to draw and paint during their early years.  Sloan’s father struggled to find gainful employment moving from one job to another without ever making a fortune.  He married, Henrietta, a girl who had come from a much more financially prosperous family and who was a teacher.  James Sloan suffered a mental breakdown when John was seventeen years of age and consequently was unable to work and the burden of supporting the family fell on to the shoulders of the seventeen year old John.  For this reason, John Sloan had to leave school and find a job in order to bring in some money for the family.

Sloan was employed in a local bookstore as an assistant cashier.  The job was not very taxing and the young man had time to read the books that were on sale at the emporium and also spend time studying the artistic prints that it also held.  It was during this time that Sloan started to make pen and ink copies of some of the prints and the store owner liked them so much that he allowed Sloan to put them up for sale in the store.  Two years later in 1890 Sloan moved on to work in a stationery store where he used to design calendars and greeting cards.  Sloan had now found the joy of art and enrolled in an evening art class.  Buoyed by his artistic successes he left the stationers and set himself up as a commercial artist but his well-intentioned venture failed and he took a job as an illustrator at the local newspaper offices of The Philadelphia Enquirer, later he would work for the rival newspaper, The Philadelphia Press.    He continued his artistic tuition in the evenings by enrolling at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.  It was here he met and became friends with fellow artists such as William Glackens and Robert Henri who became Sloan’s mentor, sending him reproductions of works by the French Impressionists and the leading European Renaissance painters, for him to copy.

When Sloan was twenty-seven he was introduced to a young woman with a somewhat chequered history, Anna Maria Wall, known affectionately as Dolly.  Sloan, who was very naive, very self-conscious and lacked the social graces which would gain him female companionship, met Anna at a brothel.  Although she worked in a department store during the day, she supplemented her meagre income by working in a brothel at night.  She needed the extra money to feed her other vice;  she was also an alcoholic but despite all this he fell in love with her and they started, what one can imagine, was a “challenging” relationship.

Their relationship did prove difficult as Anna not only suffered the effects of excessive and prolonged alcohol intake, she suffered from alcohol-related mental problems  and insecurity often believing Sloan was about to leave her.  In 1906 Sloan sought medical advice and was advised that he needed to constantly support Anna and show how much he needed her.  Between them they devised a plan by which Sloan would keep a dairy and in it he would write down each day how much he loved Anna and wanted to be with her and then leave the diary somewhere where she was bound to find it and surreptitiously read his journal entries and by doing so put her mind at rest.  He wrote daily entries for seven years until 1913.   Despite these problems, Sloan’s artistic work continued well and he was producing numerous oil paintings.  In 1904 he moved to New York and went to live in Greenwich Village and although relying on money he received from his freelance work for The Philadelphia Press newspaper, he supplemented that with money he earned for his book and magazine illustrations.   It was whilst living in New York, in 1912, that he painted today’s featured work McSorley’s Bar.  He exhibited it at the 1913 Armory Show, an exhibition of modern art which had been organised by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors.  This turned out to be a landmark exhibition which opened the eyes of the New Yorkers to this new modern art and the likes of cubism, who up till then had been accustomed to realistic art.   Sloan’s painting never sold and in fact remained unsold until 1932 when the Detroit Institute of Arts purchased it.  This was the first painting by Sloan to be part of a museum collection and was probably one of his best.

This painting was very typical of works by John Sloan in which he liked to depict the energy and life during the early years of the twentieth century of New York City and its inhabitants.  Sloan was a socialist and a member of the Socialist Party and had great empathy with the less well-off and their demanding and troubled existences.  His paintings would show the city’s people in different places and situations on the city streets and occasionally, like today’s painting, he would depict people in interior settings, such as cafés or bars as they discussed among themselves their everyday existence.

The painting today shows the interior of McSorley’s Bar with its clientele standing at the bar.  John Mc Sorley opened his Manhatten establishment on East Seventh Street in 1854 and during its existence in the nineteenth century, was an all-male bar.  From around 1912 it became a regular haunt of John Sloan and his Ashcan School artists.  The bar Sloan depicted was somewhat rough and inhospitable. It was always frequented by a great mix of people of various social classes and even today carpenters and mechanics rub shoulders with Wall Street brokers and local politicians.  John Sloan completed five paintings of the interior of the bar between 1912 and 1930 and these certainly increased the popularity of the establishment.   Today, McSorley’s bar draws visitors from around the world.    Its fame as New York’s oldest bar assures its survival and a 1970 court order guarantees that women are as welcome as men!   It’s a museum-like place. One can go there to drink a pint of ale and survey relics of a past era.

In 1943, Sloan’s  wife, Dolly, died of coronary heart disease. The next year, Sloan married Helen Farr, who is responsible for most of the preservation of his works. Part of this was the diary he wrote between 1907 and 1913 for his first wife, Dolly, to read and which were lovingly collated and published in 1965.  They gave a marvellous insight into Sloan’s life and his thoughts during those turbulent times.

On September 7, 1951 John Sloan died at the age of 80, of cancer in Hanover, New Hampshire.  John French Sloan was a leading figure in the Ashcan School of realist painters and was somebody who embraced the principles of socialism and allowed his artistic genius to be used to benefit those fervently upheld values.  His paintings sadly rarely sold during his lifetime and teaching at the Art Students’ League, of which he became its director in 1931, was his principal income.

To learn more about McSorley’s Bar why not go to their website:

http://www.mcsorleysnewyork.com/