George Bellows, the beauties of an industrial landscape, and a tribute to the quiet men who got things done
By Michael Dirda
This past weekend I spent a too-short hour in the National Gallery wandering through a big retrospective exhibition devoted to George Bellows (1882-1925). Bellows is most commonly remembered today for his paintings of boxers, including a famous one of Jack Dempsey being knocked out of the ring. There’s also a fairly well known picture called Forty-Two Kids, depicting a troop of naked boys swimming and diving off a wharf—I first saw it as an illustration for one of Walt Whitman’s poems.
Wonderful as these are, I was most taken with Bellows’s urban landscapes and street scenes. He depicts the titanic excavations for New York’s Penn Station, huffing laborers on the Hudson River docks, parks filled with snow, the skeletal girders of skyscrapers, carnivalesque tenements, and the whole hurdy-gurdy world that was early 20th-century Manhattan. Bellows also contributed uplifting or soul-stirring cover illustrations to The Masses, the famous socialist magazine. In his early days he comes across as very much a social-realist painter.
Years ago, when I thought I might one day collect prints, I was drawn to etchings and engravings depicting factories, steel mills, and other industrial sites. There’s something about slag heaps and rusting ironworks that just makes my soul sing. I’ve even been known to admire the ravaged, lunar landscapes created by quarries and strip-mining.
Most obviously, my fondness for foundries and blighted terrains goes back to my hometown Lorain, its onetime motto being “Industrial Empire in Ohio’s Vacationland.” That vacationland, believe it or not, would be the shores of polluted Lake Erie, not far from Cleveland, where—notoriously—the Cuyahoga River once caught on fire because of the oily chemical slick floating on its waters.
When I was growing up, daily existence in Lorain was dominated by the National Tube division of U.S. Steel, the American Shipbuilding corporation, Thew Shovel, and a Ford assembly plant. As a result, my notions of grandeur and the sublime were shaped by views of smokestacks and half-built lake freighters and diesel cranes stretching their long steel necks toward the sky. The men who worked in these mills and factories—my father and uncles and cousins—were tough, self-reliant, and, to my childish eyes, almost heroic. These guys could fix a car, build a garage, lay bricks, install plumbing, wire a house, raise a garden, hunt and trap and fish and drink and play cards and go to church on Sunday. I, by contrast, always had my nose in a book and now sit in a chair all day while my lily-white fingers type out words on a screen. Sometimes I feel ashamed at how far I’ve fallen short of the omnicompetence of the hard, quiet men I grew up with.
When I first came to Washington I was shocked to see that this city was, and is, the reverse of my hometown. Here people put on a coat and tie to go to work during the week and on Sunday slouch around in jeans and flannel shirts. In Lorain, people wore old, patched clothes to work and saved their good outfits for Sunday. “Sunday best” wasn’t just a phrase. Unless he was helping a relative with some big, dirty project on his day off, my father dressed with great care each Sunday, my mother did her hair, and my sisters and I were expected to be wearing our “nice clothes” in case relatives came calling in the afternoon.
One reason I live in Silver Spring, Maryland, is that—before the urban development of recent years—it used to be the sort of place you would go if you needed some spot welding done, where you might buy a cheap wig, or have a muffler replaced, or visit an old-style junk shop. The place had character. Its downtown felt real to me in a way that most of marbled Washington, pretentious Potomac, and the traffic nightmare called Northern Virginia never have. Some of the old Silver Spring still survives, but it is passing quickly.
As they age, most painters grow deeper, more introspective, and often weirder in the way they apply paint or see the world. But in Bellows’s case, the opposite occurred. His late work is much weaker—wan and pallid and over-finished and conventional—compared to the muscular energy and boldness of his youthful achievements. Some of the figures in those early paintings look like Boschian grotesques, others scarcely have any face at all. His World War I propaganda paintings of the Hun are truly shocking, including depictions of naked men and women about to be executed. But many of the paintings he did after he moved to Woodstock, New York, in 1920 look like magazine illustrations and sometimes were. Alas, I forgot to notice the dates for his portraits, several of which—including one of a young girl, lent by the Butler Art Institute of Youngstown, Ohio—are as good as anything by John Singer Sargent.
So, the Bellows show was quite wonderful, and yet slightly worrisome too. Artists, and that includes writers, like to think that they get better as they grow older. But sometimes we kid ourselves and that just isn’t so. Our youthful ambition and originality disappear, replaced by a boring and bland smoothness, usually dubbed mature professionalism. By contrast, I’m sure that my father and uncles didn’t always know how to do a lot of what they did around the house, but, being unable to afford plumbers, roofers or mechanics, they slowly—by trial and error, supplemented by some creative swearing—gradually figured out how to do it themselves. I, of course, just write exorbitant checks to skilled people who come to the house in vans or panel trucks.
It’s an old chestnut to say that we need to keep challenging ourselves through life. Samuel Beckett memorably declared, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” While T. S. Eliot proclaimed that “Old men ought to be explorers.” More bluntly, Cyril Connolly said that we should put aside whatever “piece of iridescent mediocrity” we were wasting our time with and get down to trying to create a masterpiece. Sigh. All of which means that I really should take another stab at writing that novel. Maybe tomorrow.
Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and the author of the memoir An Open Book and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure. His most recent book, part of Princeton’s Writers on Writers series, is On Conan Doyle. Dirda is also a frequent lecturer and an occasional college teacher.