Bellows and the Body: The Real, The Ideal, The Nude

This exhibition centres on two nude studies painted early in the career of the important American artist, George Bellows (1882 – 1925). It considers how these striking works were shaped by a range of competing influences and experiences.

Raised in Columbus, Ohio, Bellows attended The Ohio State University between 1901 and 1904. As a student he was immersed in the sporting, fraternal and popular cultures that celebrated the ideal body. Dropping out before graduation, Bellows moved to Manhattan and enrolled at the New York School of Art with the aim of becoming a commercial illustrator. There he met the inspirational teacher Robert Henri (1865 – 1929), and the circle of Henri’s followers, later dubbed the Ashcan School. As Bellows frequently acknowledged, this encounter changed his life.

Henri urged his friends and students to paint New York’s bustling sidewalks and to record the fast-paced, rapidly changing city. These fresh, vibrant takes on modern life remain the group’s best- known work. But, in their early years in Philadelphia, Henri and his friend John Sloan (1871 – 1951), had been influenced by the painter and teacher Thomas Anshutz (1851 – 1912).  Anshutz placed great emphasis on the human form through studying from the life model and anatomy lectures.

Bellows and his fellow Ashcan artists confronted flesh and bodily imperfection in an uncompromising manner.  In their nudes they explore and reveal the ways in which labour and struggle mark working-class bodies. These images also express their opposition to the era’s genteel, censored and self-censoring, mainstream culture.

Dr John Fagg