The Realism Art Of George Bellows In 8 Facts & 8 Artworks

At the start of 20th-century America, artists recorded significant technological and cultural changes around them, including George Bellows.

Oct 2, 2020By Zoe Mann, BA Art History
stag at sharkeys george bellows
Stag at Sharkey’s by George Bellows, 1909, via The Cleveland  Museum of Art


George Bellows was an American artist painting in the realism art movement during the early 20th century. Born in Columbus, Ohio, Bellows eventually made his way to New York City, where he emerged himself in the harsh reality of a newly industrialized American city. Here are 8 facts about American realist George Bellows. 


1. George Bellows Focused On Realism Art In America

george bellows portrait smithsonian
Portrait of George Bellows, via Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.


George Bellows enrolled at Ohio State University in 1901. However, he grew bored with academic life. He dropped out and left for the Big Apple where he studied art. 


In New York, George Bellows saw a city divided. The rich of upper Manhattan lived in seemingly ivory castles looking down at the poor below, stuck in crowded tenements, and working long hours at factories to bring food to their families. Bellows was interested in showing this drastic class difference and the dark and seedy underbelly of underground New York. Bellows’ paintings are an excellent example of American realism art and he wasn’t afraid to show the hardships of one of America’s largest cities. 


George Bellows’ paintings are dark and with crude painterly strokes. This style makes it seem as if the figures are in motion. The viewer can feel the heat of the overcrowded city streets with people and motorcars zooming in different directions. His legacy has lived on, and his paintings of the underground boxing scene have stood the test of time.   


2 . He Was Associated With The Ashcan School

new york george bellows national gallery
New York by George Bellows, 1911, via The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


When George Bellows arrived in New York in 1904, he enrolled in the New York School of Art. His teacher, Robert Henri, was an artist associated with The Eight or the Ashcan School. The Ashcan School was not a physical school, but a group of artists focused on painting realism artworks. Paintings by Ashcan artists were a commentary to the idealistically light and beautiful pastels of the impressionists. Alongside Robert Henri in the Ashcan school were William James Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan.


Robert Henri believed “art for life’s sake,” which differs from the popular expression, “art for art’s sake.” Henri thought art should be for all the people rather than the few who could afford to buy paintings or view them in museums and galleries. Henri also believed painters were only showing the ideal world everyone wanted to live in rather than what was actually happening. Henri made it his mission to depict real-life situations, settings, and people, even if it was rough to view. The modern world was changing because of the boom of industrialization, and the Ashcan School wanted to record the changes as it was happening. 


Despite being realism art, the Ashcan School artists, including George Bellows, weren’t interested in making political commentary. They, too, were middle-class men who enjoyed the same restaurants, nightclubs, and parties the rich were attending. These artists wanted to show real New York without sugarcoating the truth to sell works. However, they weren’t living amongst their subjects.


3. George Bellows Coined The Name Ashcan School

noon george bellows ashcan
Noon by George Bellows, 1908, via H.V. Allison & Co.


Through Henri, George Bellows collaborated with the Ashcan school, the name coming from a drawing of Bellows titled, Disappointments of the Ash Can in 1915. The term Ashcan School was attributed to the artists after the school lost popularity. The artists of the Ashcan School were known as the avant-garde of New York until the Armory Show of 1913, when Americans got a taste of European modernists like Henri Matisse, Marcel Duchamp, and Pablo Picasso. These artists became the new obsession of the American art-world with their surreal and geometrically interesting works. The gritty realist art of the Ashcan School was left in the dark. 


However, George Bellows continued to paint in the Ashcan style until he died in 1925. 


4. Sick Of Academia, He Created The Armory Show

both members of this club george bellows
Detail of Both Members of This Club by George Bellows, 1909, via The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.


In 1913, George Bellows was a full-time teacher at the National Academy of Design after years of organizing exhibitions for the academy. Bellows must have forgotten how tiring and boring school was for him, and after a while, he needed a break. However, this break would not be an empty one. George Bellows assisted in the founding of the International Exhibition of Modern Art. In 1994, the exhibition became the Armory show, which is still in existence today. The Armory Show is an exhibition focusing on the leading artists from modernity and contemporary times. Bellows wanted the city to get a taste of American realism artworks. It was sad in many ways because the Armory Show led to the Ashcan School’s downfall. 



5. He Experimented With Lithography


nude study george bellows
Nude Study by George Bellows, 1923, via Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.


Better known as a painter, George Bellows branched out to other mediums of art, including lithography. In 1915 when Bellows started experimenting with the printing medium, lithography was not as popular as etching. Although similar, lithography is printing using stone or metal as the base plate. The artist uses grease on the areas they want the ink to stay, and ink repellent on the rest. 


Printing was a popular medium for realism artworks. A lot of famous prints studies of the human form and expression. George Bellow’s lithograph prints are no different. In his Nude Study printed in 1923, Bellows explores the naturalism of the human form. This figure obscures their face to the viewer. The viewer can’t see who they are or what they are feeling. This figure is merely a study of form, as the title suggests. 


Bellows’ Ashcan education and sensibilities still influenced his Nude Study and other lithograph prints. His form’s shading is quite dark, and the hiding of the face symbolizes shame or sadness, which many of his subjects exhibited. 


6. Known For Urban Landscapes, He Also Completed Portraits

mr mrs phillip wase george bellows
Mr. and Mrs. Phillip Wase by George Bellows, 1924, via Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.

George Bellows is most known for his landscapes of real New York. However, Bellows did paint a few portraits in his time. His landscapes, like his portraits, are not an idealization of the sitter. In classic portraiture, the sitter will often ask the artist to make their jawline sharper or their body taller. When Bellows was painting, portraits became less idealized. Photography existed in Bellows’ time, and many painters wanted their portraits to be as realistic as photographs. 


A famous Bellows portrait was painting a couple of months before his death in 1924. It’s a painting of Mr. and Mrs. Phillip Wase, Bellows’ neighbors in Woodstock, New York. In the painting, the couple sits stiffly next to each other on the couch. Mrs. Wase looks tired and worrisome towards the viewer as Mr. Wase looks away, lost in a daydream. Above Mr. and Mrs. Wase is a portrait of a young woman. Maybe this is a portrait of a young Mrs. Wase, the woman she wishes she still was. 


The parrot sits on the top of the couch behind Mrs. Wase. Birds locked in cages were often attributed to women in the 19th century. These locked birds symbolize how women felt trapped in their homes and social constructs. The bird isn’t in a cage, but the home might be a cage for Mrs. Wase. 


This portrait is a masterpiece in the realism art movement. Mr. and Mrs. Phillip Wase desire youth and feel the pain of nostalgia, and they aren’t the only couple to feel this. Old age comes to all, that is realism. 


7. Art Or Baseball?

cincinnati reds george bellows tony mullane
Baseball card portrait of Tony Mullane, pitcher for the Cincinnati Red Stockings, 1887-90, via Library of Congress, Washington D.C.


Although a hobby, art was not the first chosen career path for George Bellows. When Bellows attended Ohio State University, he played baseball and basketball and excelled as an athlete. 


When he graduated, Bellows had to make a choice. He was approached by a scout who offered him a place on the Cincinnati Red Stockings. Bellows rejected the offer to play baseball and decided to travel to New York to pursue a career painting artwork for the realism art movement. 


8. How Boxing Put George Bellows’ Realism Art On The Map 

dempsey and firpo george bellows
Dempsey and Firpo by George Bellows, 1924, via Whitney Museum of American Art, New York


Hung in the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City is Dempsey and Firpo. Depicted is an intense moment in the boxing match. Firpo’s arm is in motion in front of his body, and Dempsey tumbles into the crowd after Firpo meets with Dempsey’s jaw. The audience catches Dempsey and attempts to push him back into the match. George Bellows painted this realism artwork in 1924 and is perhaps his most famous work. 


All the Ashcan school and Bellows’ realism art style influenced his Dempsey and Firpo. The darkness of the setting creates a gritty scene. The air is full of cigarette smoke, creating an illusion of a crowded and small space. The audience member whom Dempsey is falling onto is blurred with chaotic motion. 


This painting depicts a very masculine scene, which underground New York primarily was. The seedy underbelly of New York City wasn’t as pretty and calm as the impressionist nature scenes. Bellows isn’t claiming those nature or relationship scenes weren’t real; he was exposing another reality, one hidden away. Bellows was bringing this reality onto the canvas and forever in the public’s attention.


Author Image

By Zoe MannBA Art HistoryZoë is a graduate student living in Los Angeles studying screenwriting. Originally from New York, she received her B.A. in Art History from Pace University. She has worked in art galleries in Manhattan and the Art Institute of Chicago. In her free time, she loves researching for her historical fiction projects and playing with her cat, Harrison.