F. Scott Fitzgerald famously remarked that there are no second acts in American lives.
On the evidence of an exhibition at the Royal Academy in London (until June 9), the painter George Bellows (1882-1925) didn’t really manage more than some splendid opening scenes.
When poor Bellows died of peritonitis at only 42, he hadn’t produced a good picture for at least a decade. But he started out really well. Although he had essentially one subject, it was a big one: New York, pulsating with life, energy, squalor and violence.
While still in his 20s, Bellows painted images that sum up a great deal about the city. Best known are his boxing paintings, particularly “Stag at Sharkey’s” (1909), and “Both Members of the Club” (1909). These have drama, razzmatazz and violence. The audience stares in from the darkness around the ring at the spectacle in the center: ferocious, Darwinian competition between two almost naked figures, glistening with sweat.
Just as good are Bellows’s pictures of construction sites, such as “Pennsylvania Station Excavation” (1909), depicting enormous, muddy, ice-bound holes in the ground from which mighty buildings would rise. These make you think he might have been an Edwardian-era equivalent to Frank Auerbach.
Then you walk into the next room, and it all begins to go wrong. Bellows’s pictures of the middle classes at leisure (“Love of Winter”, 1914) are a bit post-card-like. Then the images of German atrocities in World War I are horrible in every way: vulgar, grotesque, and crude. The works of his last years are conventionally dull.
Another American painter with a big subject was George Catlin (1796-1872). His life was changed by seeing a group of Native Americans passing through Philadelphia. Impressed by their “silent and stoic dignity,” he eventually traveled west to document the lives of their peoples. The results of his journeys are on display in “American Indian Portraits” at the National Portrait Gallery (until June 23).
Catlin was a self-taught artist -- he originally trained as a lawyer -- and was a long way from being a great painter. But, though repetitive in format, his images have enormous documentary value. They give a powerful sense of being in the presence of these people at the very moment when their traditional way of life was being destroyed.
Just as the French painter Delacroix saw North Africans as living equivalents to ancient Greeks and Romans, Catlin had similar feelings about warriors such as “Wee-Sheet, Sturgeon’s Head” (1832), with their “gigantic and symmetrical figures,” reclining “rather like statues from some master hand.”
Catlin exhibited his “Indian Gallery” around the U.S., and in London and Paris among other places. He still failed financially and at one point was imprisoned for debt.
A much more successful American painter is featured in “Through American Eyes: Frederic Church and the Landscape Oil Sketch” at the National Gallery (until April 28). This is a small display consisting of a number of little studies and one great big painting (of Niagara Falls).
Church (1826-1900) was one of the great stars of 19th- century landscape painting, winning fame with huge canvases of the West and the Andes. To my eye, those are too slick: glossy and photographic. Some of the little sketches, though, suggest a more interesting artist, with a livelier touch and a melancholy sense of solitude (a very American feeling). With some artists, smaller really is more beautiful.
George Bellows at the Royal Academy is supported by JTI, Edwards Wildman and the Terra Foundation for American Art. Burlington House, Piccadilly, W1J 0BD. Information: http://www.royalacademy.org.uk, +44-20-7300-8000.
National Portrait Gallery, 2 St. Martin’s Place, London WC2H 0HE. Information: +20-7306-0055 or http://www.npg.org.uk..
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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