Born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Bellows attended Ohio State University, where his athletic talents presaged a future in professional sports and his illustrations for the student yearbook heralded a career as an artist. In 1904, he left college and moved to New York to study with Robert Henri, under whose influence he became the leading young member of the Ashcan School. The Ashcan artists aimed to chronicle the realities of daily life, but often depicted them through rose-colored glasses. Bellows, the boldest and most versatile among them in his choice of subjects, palettes, and techniques—and also the youngest—treated both the immigrant poor and society's wealthiest with equanimity.
Bellows never traveled abroad but learned from the European masters by seeking out their works in museums, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he was a regular visitor. In 1911, the Museum acquired one of his Hudson River scenes, Up the Hudson, making him one of the youngest artists in the collection at that time; he was twenty-nine years old. Over the years, ten more paintings, six drawings, and some fifty prints were added to the Met's holdings.
Although Bellows's art was rooted in realism, the variety of his subjects and his experiments with many color and compositional theories, and his loose brushwork, aligned him with modernism—as did his commitment to artists' freedom of expression and their right to exhibit their works without interference from academic dictates or juries.
When Bellows died in January 1925 at age forty-two, his career was still a work in progress. Acknowledging his important role in American art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art organized the artist's first museum retrospective in 1925 as a memorial exhibition.