George Bellows -- painter, semi-pro shortstop, friend to old ladies, baritone and boxing fan, carpenter and wit -- must have been a lovely guy. Fourteen of his portraits go on view today at the National Portrait Gallery. They are -- as was he -- lively yet humane, bold but not too bold, polite but never unctuous, American to the core.
Bellows' best-known pictures -- his paintings of the boxing ring, his lithographs of city life -- are missing from this show. Here we see him close to home.
This little show is filled with portraits of his parents, his aunt, his friends at art school, his daughters and his wife. In "Anne With Her Parasol" (1916) his oldest girl, then but 5 years old, wears a rubber band around her wrist; she thought jewelry appropriate for a formal portrait. Two portraits of his mother also are included. She was jolly and enormous, weighed 265, and Bellows liked to call her "the biggest mother in captivity." His father, "Honest George," whose bearded face appears in one of the strongest portraits here, was made of sterner stuff. Unlike his son, "he was not known," the catalog informs us, "to have the slightest sense of humor."
Bellows was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1882. "I arose," he wrote, "surrounded by Methodists and Republicans . . . Practically no families have any desire to develop artists among their membership, and mine was no exception. My mother wished me to be a Bishop, my father planned for me to become President of a Bank. He had, however, the greatest respect for Michaelangelo holding him second to no man, with the exception of Moses." Bellows attended Ohio State -- at the end of the trolley line in the middle of a cornfield -- where he starred in both basketball and baseball. The school, he thought, "should honestly describe itself as the Cog Wheel Mfg. Co., Maker of middle-class minds for middle-class jobs." In 1904, then 22, he set off for New York.
Bellows was lucky. He signed up for classes at William Merritt Chase's New York School of Art. "I found myself," he wrote, "in my first art school under Robert Henri having never heard of him before. . . My life begins at this point." Chase approved of painting with the fully loaded brush. Henri urged his students to "draw your material from the life around you, from all of it." Bellows learned from both of them. His early paintings here manage to combine a formal 19th-century darkness -- they are largely brown and black -- with fine, freewheeling brushwork. Perhaps the best is a fierce-yet friendly portrait of Prosper Invernizzi, a fellow student who, alas, has been totally forgotten.Webb Parmalee Hollenbeck, better known as Robin, was also in the class and is also in this show. Hollenbeck -- who later went to Hollywood where he rose to fame as the oatmeal-dumping Mr. Belvedere in the movie "Sitting Pretty" -- is known to us as Clifton Webb. His 1905 portrait is about 80 percent black.
Bellows, in 1913, helped organize the Armory Show, and the sight there of the Fauves helped brighten his colors. Passages of purple, of red and vivid green flash in his later portraits.
Bellows' finest portraits -- "Portrait of My Mother, No. 1" (1921), "Aunt Fanny" (1920), and "Mrs. T. in Wine Silk" (1919) -- are "imbued," as Marvin Sadik observes in the catalog, "with both bravura and humanity." That is particularly true of "Mr. and Mrs. Philip Wase," a double portrait of his cleaning lady and her ne'er-do-well husband (she used to lock him in the bathroom when she went off to work; she called him "Philip Waste.") Before portraits such as this one, the viewer finds it hard to choose which he finds most appealing, the painting or the sitter.
His fellow painters loved him. So, too, did his public. Conservatives and radicals alike approved of George Bellows. On Jan. 2, 1925, he was ripping up the rotten boards of his Woodstock, N.Y., studio when his appendix ruptured. He died six days later.
This show, though too small to do the painter justice, is nonetheless a pleasure. Margaret C.S. Christman wrote the entertaining catalog. "Portraits by George Bellows" closes Jan 2.