The Americans are coming ….

George Bellows: North River 1908

Exhibitions of paintings by Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, Alice Neil and Norman Rockwell have all been shown in the past few years in London and now at the National Gallery there is an exhibition of George Bellows and the Ashcan School with Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven (they’re actually Canadians) appearing later this year at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. If you have never heard of George Bellows or the Ashcan School – they are not represented in our National Galleries – this is probably because these American realist painters who painted at the beginning of the last century were soon eclipsed by later developments and as a result relegated to a lesser position in the history of Art.

George Bellows The Big Dory 1913

Active during the early decades of the 20th Century in New York City, this group of American realists were inspired by their teacher Robert Henri to seek out and portray the gritty realities of modern life. “Paint what you feel, Paint what you see, Paint what is real to you. ” he exhorted his students and Bellows, Sloan, Glackens , Shinn and Luks followed his advice and painted the everyday scenes and incidents to be found in the bustling streets of New York City. Robert Henri ‘s painting of art student Josephine Nivenson (who later married Edward Hopper) shows his bravura handling of paint that reflects his immediacy of approach and stylistic influences.

Robert Henri The Art Student (Miss Josephine Nivison) 1906


A number of them had started out life as newspaper illustrators and when photography took over as a means of reproduction, they then decided to reinvent themselves as Fine Artists. George Bellows, who is featured in this exhibition with seven paintings is famous for painting boxing matches, while John Sloan painted scenes on the Streets of Downtown New York and the East River. They brought their eye for incident and skill at representation and storytelling to their pictures of urban life. As a change from city life Bellows also painted in the countryside and in the northern suburbs. His painting ‘North River’ 1908 shows a winter landscape with the ferry leaving New York for New Jersey, while his panting “The Big Dory ‘1913 was painted in the art colony of Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine.
Although this is a small exhibition of only 12 pictures, it gives an insight into the painterly concerns of this group of pioneer American realists who were influenced by the work of Manet, Degas and Franz Hals. Their fate however was sealed with the showing of European Modernists at the famous Armoury show of 1913 which they had helped to organise.

John Sloan Sixth Avenue and Thirteenth Street 1907

The advance of modernism in the United States had started and the concerns of these artists were now considered parochial. It is only now with the advent of post modernism that a reassessment can be made and the quality of their paintings once more is allowed to come to the fore. A major exhibition of George Bellows will be shown at the Royal Academy in 2013 but what is needed now is a comprehensive look at the neglected realist painters of the American Scene. Having seen the advanced guard, British audiences are now ready for the invasion. The Americans are coming!

James Cowan
Course Leader Fine Art

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1 comment for “The Americans are coming ….

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