American beauty

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The work of George Bellows and his peers shows that US artists of the early 20th century were far more than mere European copyists, says Adrian Hamilton

It may be snobbery or just parochialism, but Europeans (including the British) have never taken much interest in American art prior to the Second World War. Abstract Expressionism, of course, has always been recognised as the great US contribution to modern art, with the Europeans trying to claim some part through the émigré artists who fled the war and settled in New York. But go back to the beginning of the last century and American artists are treated as, at best, visitors to Paris and worshippers at the feet of the impressionists.

We are wrong to be so narrow-minded. The beginning of the last century was a time when the whole art world opened up following the French lead and as a stunning small – and free, one is heartened to say – exhibition of a dozen works by George Bellows and his fellow Ashcan Painters at the National Gallery illustrates, America was not slow to take up the challenge.

"Ashcan" was the name given to a group of realist painters grouped around the artist and teacher Robert Henri in New York at the beginning of the 20th century. Embracing the New World in its most explosive city, they aimed to sweep away the academic and the formal painting of the past in favour of depicting modernising life in the raw. Their aim, as ever in the US, was to create a new, truly American art but, as ever with art movements, to do it by learning all the new techniques and spirit of the latest movements abroad.

Dominating all, and the most eager to learn the lessons from other art, was George Bellows, a true giant of 20th-century painting. This exhibition is something of a prequel to a major show of his work due at the Royal Academy in two years time and there is no doubt, as the subtitle of the exhibition suggests, that his work dominates the room through sheer force of colour and imagination.

Born in Columbus, Ohio in 1882, he wasn't actually a member of the group of William Glackens, George Luks and John Sloan who gathered round Henri in Philadelphia in the last decades of the 19th century, but soon joined them when they moved, with Henri, to New York towards the end of the century.

Where the other members of the group tended to the more conceptual, didactic even, Bellows, who died relatively young in 1925, was a born individualist. His works breath a fierceness verging on anger as he smears his paint across the canvas in great sweeps of his palette knife and strokes of his brush to depict snow and river challenged by man and building. His blacks are violent and his whites almost blue. Manet, of course. But Whistler and Sargent, too.

His most famous, and most brutal, work, depicting a boxing match – Both Members of This Club at the National Gallery of Art in Washington – is not here, although one hopes it will be in the RA show. But the seven works on display here are more than enough to astonish the eye and fill the appetite.

In Excavation at Night from 1908 he almost literally excavates the paint itself to depict the gaping hole that is to become Penn Station, the mud texturised as thick black paint, the centre held by a wall daubed with white, the houses alongside dimly illuminated by electric light.

A loaded caption alongside declares "the magnificent pile under construction here is long gone now, but Penn station in its dreary contemporary incarnation remains one of the busiest

railway hubs in America" – clearly written by a native or lover of the Big Apple, but hardly to the point. This is not a vision of new build but a fierce comment on the savage wound that construction entails.

The same sense of man forcing the pace of the natural world is seen in The Palisades and North River, where steam and progress press against water and hills. In a Winslow Homer-style picture of man and sea, the diagonals of the men are pitted against the counterforce of a white and red boat of startling brightness and clear lines.

White for Bellows was what black was for Manet (although he loved black also). He has remarkable feel for the positive presence of the colour and a powerful way of using blue to give it an energy of its own. His painting of snow, particularly in Blue Snow, The Battery, has a use of colour that reminds one above all of Van Gogh, one of the artists included in the famous, and influential, Armory Show of modern art which Bellows helped to organise in 1913.

As well as passion, there is a restlessness about Bellows's work, an embrace of contradiction that gives his early works in particular a pronounced tension. An extraordinary and deliberately contradictory portrait, Nude Girl, Miss Leslie Hall of 1909, has a Toulouse-Lautrec head staring tensely into space with a Rubens body and feet still clad oddly in shoes. The effect is provoking and uncomfortable, as it is meant to be.

Bellows later turned to the landscape and seascape of Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine. It was not so much a retreat as a resolution. The sea and sky are still troubled and dangerous. The colours are still dark and the paint thick. But man is no longer there to challenge. Instead, the gaze is outward to the uncertain power of nature. His death, in his early forties, deprived the art world of a major force.

With all this energy and blackness, the other painters of the movement represented in the National Gallery's one-room show of a dozen works are bound to seem a little tame in comparison. Robert Henri, their guru, is represented by two portraits, one of The Art Student (Josephine Nivison who was later to marry Edward Hopper) and a study after Frans Hals of a boy's face. William Glackens's Washington Square has Renoiresque liveliness, but not the originality that the artist sometimes showed, while a brightly coloured picture of knitting women by George Luks was named patriotically (it was painted in 1918) Knitting for the Soldiers as if it was an early Norman Rockwell, which it quite clearly isn't, any more than John Sloan's almost caricature picture of a street scene in Lower Manhattan, Sixth Avenue and Thirtieth Street of 1907 is quite the searing portrayal of lower class and deprivation that the catalogue would have it.

Is there something distinctly "American" about the Ashcan School as they themselves claimed? Not in the artistic sense. The life they breath is from the air of the beginnings of modernism in Europe. And yet there is something distinctly un-European about their forthrightness and energy. That owes something to the fact that nearly all the artists had practised and grown up with newspaper illustrations. Pictures had to have a narrative to them, a quality of immediacy, which was not true across the Atlantic. And then again, there is that elusive sense of optimism, or rather belief in the future and the limitless horizon, that does seem true to the country and the time.

This is the first of what is planned to be a series of exhibitions organised by the National Gallery and the Terra Foundation for American Art bringing American art over to Britain. I can hardly wait.

An American Experiment: George Bellows and the Ashcan Painters, National Gallery, London WC2 (020 7747 2885) to 30 May

Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea


In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops


Arts and Entertainment
Full circle: Wu-Tang’s Method Man Getty

Music review

Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game