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George Bellows

November 15, 2012–February 18, 2013

Late Works, 1920–24

During what were to be his last years of life, Bellows spent the summers in Woodstock, New York, a rural arts community in the Catskill Mountains. There, he communed with nature, the local townspeople, and a close circle of family and artist-friends, including Leon Kroll, Charles Rosen, and Eugene Speicher. Other artists such as Andrew Dasburg, Henry McFee, and Konrad Cramer were also part of his social circle, although he did not follow their modernist approach. Bellows made small bucolic landscapes in Woodstock, but his most important works from the period were the monumental figure paintings he executed with Old Master grandeur. Many of these were also painted in Woodstock, while others were begun there and finished in New York City. Traditional in subject and regimented in structure, they often referenced well-known paintings that he knew from the Metropolitan Museum's collection or had seen in reproductions. Bellows's last masterpiece, Dempsey and Firpo (1924; Whitney Museum of American Art), embodies the era's Machine Age aesthetic and Art Deco sleekness. The questions it raises about a new direction for his art were, however, never answered. On January 8, 1925, at the age of forty-two, Bellows died from a ruptured appendix. The writer Sherwood Anderson concluded that Bellows's last paintings "keep telling you things. They are telling you that Mr. George Bellows died too young. They are telling you that he was after something, that he was always after it."

George Bellows (American, Columbus, Ohio 1882–1925 New York City). Emma and Her Children, 1923. Oil on canvas, 59 1/4 x 65 3/8 in. (150.5 x 166.1 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Subscribers and by purchase from the John Lowell Gardner Fund

Just weeks after his mother died, Bellows painted his wife and children seated on her Victorian loveseat. It is the first of six different portraits of various people that incorporates this piece of furniture. This painting is often compared to Auguste Renoir's Madame Georges Charpentier and Her Children Georgette and Paul (1878), which Bellows had seen at the Metropolitan Museum, but its somber palette and stoic poses seem closer to the Old Master paintings, which he also admired at the Met, than to Renoir's Impressionism.

George Bellows (American, Columbus, Ohio 1882–1925 New York City). Dempsey and Firpo, 1924. Oil on canvas, 51 x 63 1/4 in. (129.5 x 160.7 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Purchase, with funds from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney

In one of his last paintings, Bellows returned to the subject of boxing, which had established his reputation. Having been commissioned to depict the Dempsey v. Firpo championship fight on September 14, 1923, at New York's Polo Grounds, he immortalized the most startling moment of the first round in a stop-action freeze frame. The Argentinian challenger, Luis Ángel Firpo, has knocked the champion, Jack Dempsey, out of the ring—although Dempsey would go on to triumph in the second round. The stylized figures, limited palette, and dramatic tension capture the essence of the sport and seem to signal a new—and unrealized—direction for Bellows's art.