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American beauty

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