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George Bellows

November 15, 2012–February 18, 2013

Bellows's Process: Prints, Drawings, and Paintings

Bellows was always a gifted draftsman. After he installed a printing press in 1916 in his home studio on East 19th Street in Manhattan, he also mastered lithography, a printmaking technique that depends directly on drawing. Between 1916 and his death in 1925, he produced about two hundred editions, totaling eight thousand impressions. Lithography became an integral part of his creative process as he developed subjects across different media, moving easily between drawings, paintings, and prints—not always in that order. Issued in editions of twenty-five, fifty, or one hundred, his prints were affordable and kept his most popular images in the public eye. Although they sometimes repeated subjects of earlier date, they were never exact copies of those works; rather, they reflected his rethinking of specific details, tonal values, size, and scale to alter the visual effect.

George Bellows (American, Columbus, Ohio 1882–1925 New York City). Cliff Dwellers, 1913. Oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 41 1/2 in. (100.3 x 105.4 cm). Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Fund

The term "cliff dwellers" refers to the Native Americans of the Southwest who lived in stratified cave dwellings cut into the sides of steep cliffs. Here, multistory tenement buildings on the Lower East Side are overcrowded to the point of bursting. Residents spill onto the streets and hang out of windows to get some relief from the summer heat. Penned in by walls of brick, they seem unable to escape their circumstances. As one New York City official lamented, "It is simply impossible to pack human beings into these hives . . . and not have them suffer in health and morals." While the picture appears to have a political agenda, Bellows professed his commitment only to personal and artistic freedom.

George Bellows (American, Columbus, Ohio 1882–1925 New York City). Drawing for "The Cliff Dwellers", 1913. Transfer drawing, reworked with lithographic crayon, ink, and scraping, 22 x 19 in. (55.9 x 48.3 cm). Private Collection

George Bellows (American, Columbus, Ohio 1882–1925 New York City). Why Don't They Go to the Country for Vacation?, 1913. Transfer drawing, reworked with lithographic crayon, ink, and scraping, 25 x 22 1/2 in. (63.5 x 57.2 cm). Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Fund

George Bellows (American, Columbus, Ohio 1882–1925 New York City). The Cliff Dwellers, 1913. Watercolor and pen and brush and black ink on wove paper, 21 1/4 x 27 in. (54 x 68.6 cm). The Art Institute of Chicago, Olivia Shaler Swan Memorial Collection

These drawings for Bellows's oil painting Cliff Dwellers illustrate how the artist spent a fair amount of time thinking about the narrative details and compositional arrangements of his large oil paintings. In the two black-and-white transfer drawings, he changes some small elements within the same overall composition: for example, including a woman on the fire escape hanging laundry in the upper right corner of Drawing for "Cliff Dwellers" (private collection), and filling in the space in front of the streetcar at the left center edge in Why Don't They Go to the Country for Vacation? (Los Angeles County Museum of Art). His differing distribution of light and dark areas in these two drawings serves to highlight different vignettes. The third drawing, The Cliff Dwellers (Art Institute of Chicago), is a much more detailed, close-up view, in color, of the young girl scolding a crying boy at the bottom of the painting.