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George Bellows

November 15, 2012–February 18, 2013

New York, 1905–8

By the fall of 1904, Bellows had arrived in New York City, intent on pursuing a career as an artist. He boarded at the YMCA on Fifty-seventh Street and enrolled at the nearby New York School of Art, where he quickly fell under the influence of his teacher Robert Henri (1865–1929). Henri urged his students to move beyond the genteel scenes then favored by the conservative members of the National Academy of Design and the American Impressionists to seek out contemporary subjects that might challenge prevailing standards of taste. Responding to Henri's teachings, Bellows focused on the city's impoverished immigrant population. In their originality, thematic range, and varied technique, his early works soon surpassed the efforts of his talented classmates Edward Hopper (1882–1967) and Rockwell Kent (1882–1971). Bellows paid particular attention to the children who inhabited the squalid and dangerous slums. In complex multifigured compositions brimming with vitality, he captured his subjects' lives on the precarious margins of society.

George Bellows (American, Columbus, Ohio 1882–1925 New York City). Forty-two Kids, 1907. Oil on canvas. 42 x 60 in. (106.7 x 152.4 cm). Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Museum Purchase, William A. Clark Fund

Forty-two Kids, painted in August 1907, depicts a band of boys sunning themselves and bathing in Manhattan's muddy East River. In turn-of-the-century slang, "kids" referred to the streetwise children of recently arrived, working-class immigrants living in Lower East Side tenements. The canvas was initially awarded the Lippincott Prize at the 1908 annual exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, but the honor was withdrawn over fears that the sponsor would object to the naked children. Bellows commented, "No, it was the naked painting they feared." Nonetheless, Forty-two Kids was purchased within a year of its completion, marking the second sale of Bellows's career.

George Bellows (American, Columbus, Ohio 1882–1925 New York City). Beach at Coney Island, 1908. Oil on canvas, 42 x 60 in. (106.7 x 152.4 cm). Private collection

Having painted tenement kids enjoying themselves along the banks of Manhattan's East River, Bellows turned for a subject to Brooklyn's Coney Island, a popular beach destination for diverse crowds seeking relief from the summer heat. Relaxed moral codes had long been associated with the resort, although the construction of new amusement parks and other attractions promised reforms. Bellows signals promiscuousness with the amorous man and woman at lower left, who capture the attention of several other figures. One leading critic described Bellows's crowded composition as "a distinctly vulgar scene."