Bright lights, big city: "New York" (1911) by George Bellows
More than half a century before Andy Warhol became New York's honorary painter through pictures that encapsulated its loucheness and celebrity consciousness, the city had a more thoroughgoing chronicler. George Bellows (1882-1925) captured the surging energy and klaxon noise of the metropolis on the make like no other, before or since.
He is now known as a one-work artist, for his painting Stag at Sharkey's of 1909, a boxing slugfest where two fighters tear into one another as a raucous crowd howls from the ringside. It captures not just the primal nature of boxing but of the world of the spectators too, a rich brew of atavism and stogie smoke. This is hardscrabble, blue-collar New York — Lower East Side immigrants and hard labour rather than Upper East Side patricians. As George Bellows: Modern American Life at the Royal Academy (until June 9)shows, however, history has done the painter a great disservice. There was far more to Bellows than one picture and his New York, a city of frantic building, sport, politics and commerce, is essentially the same today. The modern can be a long time changing.
It is worth thinking of Bellows alongside Edward Hopper. The two men were born in the same year and were taught by the same man, Robert Henri. Henri preached against the academy, the genteel and the appealing and believed, as Bellows put it, that the artist should "watch all good art, and accept none as a standard for yourself. Think with all the world, and work alone." Although they remained friends Bellows developed into the anti-Hopper: where the one painted turn-of-the-century America's urban loneliness, the other painted its franticness. There is no room for existential doubts with Bellows. If he had painted the bar in Hopper's Nighthawks in which four isolated characters sit in silent communion he would have had it cigarette-fugged, teeming and spilling on to the street.
Bellows arrived in New York from Ohio in 1904 shortly after Theodore Roosevelt had given his landmark speech extolling "the strenuous life". It was an ideal Bellows adopted as his own. Like Roosevelt he had taken to athletic pursuits to overcome childhood weakness and the soon-to-be president's inherent appeal to masculinity and physicality suited him perfectly. It was backed up by Henri, who thought that before they picked up a brush the first duty of each of his students was "to be a man". Bellows put it differently: "Try everything that can be done. Try it in every possible way. Be deliberate. Be spontaneous. Be thoughtful and painstaking. Be abandoned and impulsive. Learn your own possibilities . . . There is nothing I do not want to know that has to do with life or art."