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George Bellows and Miss Bentham

John Fagg

George Bellows’s own body figures prominently in accounts of his work. A friend from his college years described him as ‘Ohio’s greatest shortstop’ and noted:

‘Off the [baseball] diamond or the basketball floor he was ungainly and awkward, puzzled what to do with his long arms and six feet two of height. In baseball all this was changed. Sure-footed and swift, he drifted and bounded about the infield with the indescribable grace of an acrobat.’1

Then as now, that physicality and genuine athletic prowess marked Bellows out in the artworld, shaping the way his art has been described. ‘Studio 616 gave him the space he had always needed,’ explains biographer Charles Morgan, when detailing Bellows’s summer 1906 move to the Lincoln Arcade Building (fig 1). ‘In the classroom the easels crowded so closely in on each other that he had been hard put to move his right arm from his palette to the canvas – it was a long and energetic arm.’2 This is, surely, the broad-swung limb of the artist, with his back to the viewer, in the cramped classroom of the lithograph, The Life Class. Commentators have linked Bellows’s athleticism to his bold, slashing brushstrokes, or used it, more troublingly, to distance him from crude stereotypes of the weak, effete artist.

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Fig 1. Photograph of Bellows’s Studio, about 1907-08. George Wesley Bellows Papers (Box 7, Folder 2), Archives and Special Collections, Amherst College Library / Bellows Trust

Nude, Miss Bentham, which Morgan identifies as the first painting made in the new studio, contains subtler traces of Bellows’s own body. Life-class models normally pose on a stand in order to be visible to the whole room and to take up a range of positions, and so studies from them tend to be made from a point of view looking up at the model. By contrast, and perhaps as a way to mark a break from classroom practice, Bellows’s model stands directly on the ground and the painting looks down from above her. It thus invites viewers to picture that six-foot-two frame looming over a much smaller woman.

This effect contributes to the sense of vulnerability about Miss Bentham, as does the arm clenched to her breast and that far-away, hard-to-read look. Robert Henri’s teaching emphasised encounter and reciprocity between artist and model. ‘The model does not unfold herself to you, you must rise to her,’ runs one of the lines of studio critique that his students gathered to form the 1923 book The Art Spirit. ‘She should be the inspiration for your painting.’3 Some of the tension and uncertainty in Miss Bentham’s face and body maybe derive from Bellows’s own disposition as he made his first youthful and inexperienced steps as an artist, fresh out of school. How sure of himself was he, as he told or showed her how to pose? Might some of that off-court awkwardness have transmitted itself from artist to model, or shaped the way in which Bellows saw and imagined the bodies of others? Whatever its cause, an air of discomfort pervades the painting and Bellows does not seek to ameliorate it. Looking at this nude is not an easy experience.

Miss Bentham’s body is marked in various ways. Dark pigment demarcates the hollow of her cheek, the rut between her shoulder blades and the pronounced cleft at the base of her spine, and runs under her left arm, between her ribs and across the small of her back. Her torso is all taut skin and protruding bone. Her left arm and shoulder are worked in paler fleshtones and loose, brushy strokes; the lighter, thinner paint suggest a slight, scrawny upper body. By contrast her buttocks and stomach are fleshier and weightier, rendered in solid flesh-coloured paint. The greater solidity of the lower body gives the figure a weary, downward energy. Parts of the body are tinged red perhaps to register the abrasion and contact of sitting, kneeling and standing. Reddish-pinkish pigment is pulled through the elbows, buttocks, knees, heels and toes. Her feet are a mess of reddish-, flesh- and darker- tones, worked and scraped and muddled so that in places the weave of the canvas surfaces. Bellows’s skill in wet-on-wet brushwork comes through, though, in the left arm bent, perhaps clenched, to tense the bicep. Here the artist’s athletic experience, his intimate knowledge of what it is to inhabit and move a strong and vigorous frame, combine with classroom study of the body under Henri and Anshutz. That fluid way with rendering musculature delineates Miss Bentham’s surprisingly strong arm (fig 2).

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Fig 2. George Bellows, Nude, Miss Bentham, 1906. Oil on canvas.

© The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

These deviations from the idealised bodies of the era encourage consideration of the things in this young woman’s life that might have caused them: poor diet and manual labour; the habits of posture and disposition ingrained by deferential service work; the repetition of tasks that put a person down on their knees. Deborah van den Herik’s research into Bellows’s ‘mysterious model’ suggests that Miss Bentham was a recent immigrant, who had left a difficult life in northern England for the menial and service-sector jobs and boarding-house rooms that Manhattan offered in abundance to single, working women. These circumstances would have likely made her an interesting model for Bellows and other Ashcan School artists, who pursued what art historian Rebecca Zurier describes as ‘the romantic idea that the poor are somehow more honest or simple than the bourgeoisie.’4 That idea found obvious expression in street scenes that showed the working and living conditions, and clothes and pastimes, of New York’s working class, but registered too in Ashcan School nude studies.

Bellows shows Miss Bentham in a way that makes us see the world in her body and imagine her body in the world.