Real and Ideal
While studying at The Ohio State University between 1901 and 1904, George Bellows was an enthusiastic participant in mainstream student life. He sung in the glee club, played on the baseball and basketball teams, and, following rejection in his freshman year, was admitted into the Beta Theta Pi fraternity as a sophomore. The skill at drawing that he had demonstrated from early childhood was channelled into creating witty cartoons and glamorous illustrations for The Makio yearbook (fig 1), a student calendar (fig 2), and other publications. It was only gradually, and likely with the encouragement of an English literature professor named Joseph Taylor, with whom he formed an enduring friendship, that Bellows came to see his artistic identity as something that would eventually set him apart from the professional-managerial career that his home-life and college experience were pushing him towards. In spring 1904 he chose not to sit the exams that would have enabled him to progress into his final year at university and instead hatched plans to enrol at the New York School of Art.
Bellows’s college artwork tends to follow the popular trends that shaped early-20th-century commercial illustration. Specifically, his images of student life, including daydreaming girls, courting couples and athletic fraternity men, cleave closely to the ideal figures made famous by Charles Dana Gibson, the era’s highest earning and best-known illustrator (fig 3), and JJ Gould, who established the iconic ‘college man’ type on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post (fig 4). In emulating these styles and motifs, Bellows took a similar step to many aspiring painters in this period who, like John Sloan, had to take on magazine illustration commissions as they struggled to sell their paintings. The influential art critic Charles Caffin saw this as a damaging process, arguing, in his 1907 book The Story of American Painting, that, as illustrators, a majority of the figure-painters, at any rate, have become directly infected with the prevailing pseudo-ethics of the publishers. ‘The necessity of prettiness, of not giving offence to “the most fastidious” … has been urged upon them, until it is small wonder that a great deal of American painting is characterised, if I may be allowed the expression, by irreproachable table-manners rather than by salient self-expression… ‘1 Caffin’s book featured one of the first published discussions of the Ashcan School (though they weren’t named as such) as a coherent formation, and hailed Henri, Sloan and their circle as artists willing to stand against commercial influences and take on honest, and what he described as ‘ugly’ subject matter.
Bellows had gained reluctant parental approval (and financial support) for his pursuit of an artistic career on the basis that he would study to become a commercial illustrator. Among the jarring, life-changing effects of his encounter with Robert Henri was, then, a sudden break with the idealising commercial aesthetic in which he had been immersed, and the embrace of a realist, materialist approach that artists and critics saw at the time as its antithesis. When the Ashcan School made illustration on their own terms, rather than to meet the demands of magazine art editors, they did so with the same sketch-like line, gritty or ugly subject-matter, and attention to the fleshy materiality of the body that defined much of their painting, drawing and print-making. (figs 5, 6). In the early 1910s, they found outlets for this work in the socialist monthly The Masses, with which they shared common political ground (and for which John Sloan served as art editor), and Harper’s Weekly, a mainstream mass-market magazine that, for a brief period, sought to bring their art to a wider audience (figs 7, 8, 9).
The Ashcan School approach to the female nude can similarly be seen to go against the public taste and prevailing artistic tendencies of the period. Kenyon Cox, a painter and critic best-known for his murals in the Library of Congress and other prominent buildings, specialised early in his career in the 1880s and 1890s in ‘academic nudes’ such as May, 1890. These paintings were made in what Cox would later define as ‘the Classic Spirit’: ‘the disinterested search for perfection… above all, the love of permanence and of continuity.’2 Such works were not intended to represent the actual body of the model but to exist within the long painterly tradition of the idealised nude. Cox’s struggle to sell them prompted another critic, Frank Jewett Mather, to express sympathy with ‘the plain man’ who ‘is naturally offish toward what he suspects is an exercise or a show-piece, and at best a hussy without clothes.’3 Henri and his circle shared Cox’s commitment to the nude as a subject in a culture of moral disapproval and censorship, but strongly opposed his sense of classicism.
In Nude, Miss Bentham, by naming his sitter in the title and by showing the signs of hardship and poverty that mark her body, Bellows demonstrates his investment in one particular individual body as opposed to the classic motif of the female nude. In autumn 1910 Bellows’s experience came full circle as he was appointed life class instructor at another art school, the Art Students League. A show of League students’ work at the National Arts Club later that year provided the only occasion on which Nude, Miss Bentham was exhibited in Bellows’s lifetime. It hung alongside his 1909 painting, Nude Girl, Miss Leslie Hall (fig 10), which seems designed to overtly reject the classicist’s ‘search for perfection.’ ‘Her stance was arranged to create the impression that she was unposed and being interrupted as she began to dress after an arduous modelling session,’ explains art historian Marianne Doezema. ‘She is bent over, reaching down to strap on a shoe, in a manner that is decidedly unflattering to her figure.’4 The life class or artist’s studio is once more shown to be a real world space of encounter between people, rather than a site of idealised, abstracted study.