Great Works: New York (1911) by George Bellows

National Gallery of Art, Washington

Here, flung directly into your face, is mid-town Manhattan early in the 20th century, a kettle forever on the boil, painted by a young man from Columbus, Ohio called George Bellows. He didn't always paint New York like this. He often preferred its quieter margins: Riverside Drive with its genteel strollers; the Palisades... Yes, he often seemed to enjoy inserting a hint of the natural into the urban scene. Here almost everything is aggressively man-made, a great interlocking of forces at war with each other.

The rhythms of the painting get you going – crowds move from left to right and from right to left. Traffic comes directly at you – motorised, horse-drawn, what have you – or veers off to the left or the right. It's like a drummer managing to hold in miraculous balance a whole range of different rhythms.

It is hard to look at any part of this painting because you see it all at once in all its razzmatazz, splashily impressionistic vigour, a cityscape that presses back at you, the rush and the clamour of it all, the seethe of humanity, that sense of being trapped, pent on a small and relatively narrow island where the only direction the buildings can go is up, and then up.

Buildings rise up like a great, shimmering wall of brute achievement – if you give this painting some close attention (fortunately it's on display at the Royal Academy until 9 June in a retrospective of Bellows' work), you see how thickly they have been painted – as if oil paint were a species of treacle.. Immediately in front of them (just a little to the left), there is a group of spindly, tremulous trees that seem to be clinging on to their existence by a thread.

Nature is being elbowed aside by the clamorous, no-holds-barred ambitions of man the builder. We want to say for sure exactly where this is, but it's not quite possible because, in spite of the fact that we think we half-know that this is Madison at the junction of, er... And surely that is the Flatiron Building just to the left of that point where those skyscrapers seem to split down the middle to let in that patch of angry, roiling sky... But is all this fact-chasing quite true? Not really. This is in fact a composite view of mid-town, more a kind of mesmerically awe-struck summary of the mood and the heft of the place than anything else.

On what do we focus our attention then? Well there is a hero of sorts here, but he doesn't exactly look like one. He's the man who's sitting at the back end of that horse-drawn cart, moseying along at the tail end of a load of what looks like blocks of stone (or is it hay?).

Bellows seems to suggest by the prominence he has given this detail that it might just be a summary of the entire painting. Here perhaps is some of the very stuff, quarried and shaped, borne on this cart with the wooden wheels, from which this city has been fashioned. And that idling man, whose chin rests on his hand, is its custodian.

Bellows has not chosen to give him any degree of definition – his face is a browny smudge, which is at one with the browny smudge of his working-man's clothes. He is wearily resigned to it all – unlike all those fancy be-hatted people who stride with such speed and such purpose in front of him. And yet this man of little consequence is raised up above them, at the very centre of this painting, and his load seems to have been given the unusual benediction of... could it be a splash of sunlight? Is that why this load is so much more visually present than everything that surrounds it?

What is more, this heap of stones is nothing in itself – not yet anyway. In time, it will be pressed into service, but at the moment that we contemplate it, it has nothing of the swagger of those fashionable people or that winking street signage or of those buildings that are rising up on all sides like indomitable gods. And if this proves it to be hay after all, nature may be in with a chance.

About the artist: George Bellows (1882-1925)

George Bellows moved from Columbus, Ohio to New York in 1904. A leader of the so called Ashcan School of American realism, he was also a talented choral singer and drummer, and an avid consumer of the American popular culture of his day – concerts, vaudeville shows, dance events and the cinema. He died in 1925 of appendicitis at the height of his fame.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition