George Bellows (1882-1925): Modern American Life, Royal Academy, London

Charles Darwent on art: George Bellows was knock-out – but he was always playing catch-up


The star of the Ashcan School was influenced by the Impressionists. Yet for all the surface charm, his work shows a fear of what lies beneath

When good Americans die, they go to Paris; when bad Americans die, they stay in America. Thus, at least, thought Oscar Wilde. So where is the late George Bellows, who was both the most American of painters and the most French?

Bellows was not just American but from the Midwest, born in Columbus, Ohio. You might have pinned his later foreign tastes on his teacher, the Gallic-sounding Robert Henri, were it not that Henri was raised in Nebraska and born Robert Cozad.

Henri's cousin was the Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt, from a family so devoutly Francophile that they were known in their home town of Pittsburgh as the "Qu'est-ce que c'est Cassatts". The hand of France lay heavy on American culture, and the Impressionist hand in particular.

Which, in part, explains Bellows. When he went to study under Henri at the New York School of Art in 1904, Manet and Lautrec had already been supplanted in the French taste by Gauguin and Van Gogh. No one had told Henri, though, who preached the Baudelairean ideals of the painting of modern life as though Post-Impressionism had never happened.

Thus the subtitle to the Royal Academy's Bellows exhibition, Modern American Life. The irony is that painting life wasn't modern in Paris any more by the time Bellows got around to painting it in New York. Or at least, not Manet's version of life.

For Manet, modernity had meant depicting his own milieu – you can see it downstairs, in Manet: Portraying Life. This involved such things as picnics, black silk hats, asparagus and ladies in big frocks. Bellows was a devoted follower of Manet, as a quick wander through his show suggests. Pictures such as Summer Night, Riverside Drive aren't just Manet-like in subject but in handling. If this was all Bellows had done, you might come away from the Sackler Galleries thinking that Wilde had been right – that American Edwardian painters were just wannabe French ones.

It was not all that Bellows did, though. If his name occurs to you at all – it is not well enough known in Britain – then it is probably as a painter of boxers. Works such as Stag at Sharkey's are in the RA show, and brilliant they are, too. At best, Bellows's bravura handling of paint has something of Manet's feel for immanent light. But this is paint put to a different use. His few history paintings apart, Manet was not a politically engaged artist. (While the Paris Commune raged, he painted a croquet party in Boulogne-sur-Mer.) Bellows was politically engaged, though confusingly so.

He and co-followers of Henri were quickly dubbed the Ashcan School, in reference to the grunginess of their subjects. Where Manet might paint well-bred girls taking the air in the Tuileries gardens, Bellows painted badly bred boys diving naked into the East River in Forty-Two Kids. The brushwork of Bellows's Nude Girl, Miss Leslie Hall might show the hours he had spent studying Manet's play of light on female flesh in Olympia. But Hall is powerless, unattractive, the pathos of her position as Bellows's naked model a mark of her place at the bottom of American society.

If you go between the two Academy shows, in other words, you may be brought up short. Bolshie French artist paints silk frocks; bloated American capitalist paints slums: something wrong there. And there is something wrong, since neither artist's politics are straightforward.

Bellows's drawings suggest he is not the simple lyricist of the common man that he appears. The rickety slum children in Tin Can Battle, San Juan Hill, New York are indistinguishable from the pack of strays in Dogs, Early Morning. The blood-splattered heavyweights in Bellows's boxing paintings may seem to be victims of the plutocrats who have paid to watch them fight, but the boxers in Street Fight are animalistic. Beneath the modernity of the crowds in New York (1911) is something feral, something to be feared: democracy, the rule of the masses.

This horror at what lies beneath is most brilliantly shown in Bellows's paintings of the digging of the foundations of Pennsylvania Station. Excavation at Night can't help but remind you of Ground Zero, but then maybe that pit also hinted at a darkness in America's substrata. Bellows died in 1925, of a ruptured appendix, aged 42. The last room of this show sees him setting off in all directions at once, some promising, some not. Where would they have led?

To 9 Jun (020-7300 8000)

Critic's Choice

The hugely popular Light Show has extended its run, and opening hours. Head to London's Hayward Gallery till 9pm Thur, Fri and Sat to bask in the illuminating work of 22 artists, including James Turrell and Olafur Eliasson (to 6 May). Get mythical at Manchester Art Gallery with Raqib Shaw's paintings and jewelled sculptures (to 26 May).

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
Crime watch: Cara Delevingne and Daniel Brühl in ‘The Face of an Angel’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
music Malik left the Asian leg of the band's world tour after being signed off with stress last week
Author J.K. Rowling attends photocall ahead of her reading from 'The Casual Vacancy' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 27, 2012 in London, England.
peopleNot the first time the author has defended Dumbledore's sexuality
‘The Late Late Show’ presenter James Corden is joined by Mila Kunis and Tom Hanks for his first night as host
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
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.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss