Great Works: New York (1911) by George Bellows

National Gallery of Art, Washington

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The Independent Culture

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.