In August 1911, at the invitation of his teacher Robert Henri, Bellows made the first of five visits to Maine, long a popular destination for artists. There, he captured the awe-inspiring natural forces that shaped the region, and portrayed the fishermen who made their living from the surrounding waters. Bellows was especially drawn to Monhegan Island, a rocky landmass barely a mile square, located ten miles off the midcoast. Winslow Homer's Maine seascapes of the 1890s—four of which were in the Metropolitan Museum's collection by 1911—inspired Bellows, but he exceeded even Homer in distilling nature to its fundamental elements. Bellows usually painted outdoors, on small panels that he could develop into large canvases in his island studio or when he returned to New York City. While nature was his primary focus, he did produce a series of paintings on his final visit in 1916 that featured shipbuilders at work in Camden, Maine. In northern California the following summer, Bellows once again found inspiration in the sea. The more than 250 seascapes and shore scenes that he created between 1911 and 1917 account for half of his output as a painter.
George Bellows (American, Columbus, Ohio 1882–1925 New York City). Churn and Break, 1913. Oil on panel. Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, Gift of Mrs. Edward Powell
Some of Bellows's most powerful paintings from 1913 are close-up views of surf crashing against the rocky shore. Disorienting in their compressed space and obscured horizons, they recall Winslow Homer's late seascapes, such as Northeaster (1895, The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Like Homer, Bellows used exuberant brushstrokes and viscous oil paint to convey the swelling motion and explosive sprays of water and foam, but he went beyond Homer's example to suggest nature's unbridled energy. Painting directly on a panel, as here, or on canvas, without making preliminary sketches, he applied his colors wet-into-wet, rather than mixing them on a palette. He may have been inspired to use such modern methods after seeing avant-garde art at New York's Armory Show earlier that year.
George Bellows (American, Columbus, Ohio 1882–1925 New York City). The Big Dory, 1913. Oil on panel, 18 x 22 in. (45.7 x 55.9 cm). New Britain Museum of American Art, Harriet Russell Stanley Fund
The year 1913 was particularly eventful for Bellows. He exhibited six oils and eight drawings in New York's Armory Show of international modern art (from February to March), and that spring he became a full member of the National Academy of Design. From July to October, he threw himself into work on Monhegan and Matinicus Islands, Maine, in the company of his family and the artist Leon Kroll, a noted colorist. There, he created more than one hundred small panels (each about fifteen by twenty inches) and thirteen slightly larger, more ambitious compositions such as The Big Dory. These pictures featured more color than Bellows had used before, and emphasized the relationship between man and nature.