The reported atrocities committed by German soldiers against Belgian civilians during World War I prompted Bellows to undertake his most ambitious, and ultimately most problematic, cycle of works. Devoting himself to the project between the spring and fall of 1918, he created many drawings, lithographs, and five monumental oil paintings (four of which are on view in the exhibition) that imagine in horrific detail the acts described in the American press and in the British government's Bryce Committee Report (1915). It was one of the few times that Bellows had not observed his subjects firsthand. Although Bellows initially was ambivalent about America's entry into the war, in April 1917, and did not serve in the military, his pictures were used for propaganda and to sell war bonds. Bellows's adherence to the artist Jay Hambidge's theory of "Dynamic Symmetry" gave these compositions the appearance of tableaux, with figures frozen on well-lit stages. The artificiality of their structure played against the graphic violence depicted, making them visually arresting but deeply disturbing. Throughout 1919 they were widely published and exhibited, but after the accuracy of the Bryce Committee Report was called into question, the most explicitly violent images were rarely, if ever, shown.
George Bellows (American, Columbus, Ohio 1882–1925 New York City). Massacre at Dinant, 1918. Oil on canvas, 49 1/2 x 83 in. (125.7 x 210.8 cm). Greenville County Museum of Art, South Carolina, Gift of Minor M. Shaw, Buck A. Mickel, and Charles C.Mickel; and the Arthur and Holly Magill Fund
In July 1918, Bellows completed this painting, the first of five in his war series. It memorializes the slaughter of 674 Belgian citizens, including women and children, in the town of Dinant on August 23, 1914, shortly after war had begun. The dead lie in the foreground, while a mass of helpless clergy and townspeople behind them avert their eyes from their own likely fate. At the far left, as dark storm clouds roll in, the arrival of more German troops is signaled by the bloodied bayonet held by a partially visible soldier and the barrage of raised rifles.