Evening Swell is a superb example of George Wesley Bellows' large-scale depictions of the rugged Maine coast and an important and evocative painting that demonstrates the artist at the height of his abilities. It is both a meditation on the act of painting and the complex relationship between man and nature.
Bellows painted Evening Swell in 1911, the year of his first visit to Maine. That July he accompanied fellow artists Robert Henri and Randall Davey to Monhegan, a small island located twelve miles off the state's mid-coast. Bellows had previously known of Monhegan through Rockwell Kent's striking depictions, which he first saw in 1907. Kent's paintings immediately intrigued Bellows and "were as cold and dark and primitively simple as the island itself. He had captured and disciplined the beetling cliffs and the lawless glitter of the surf around them in a majestic way that made the pretty meadows and elegant elms of the fashionable academicians look wan and undernourished. Kent's grays and blacks added power to the starkness of his designs." The quality of these paintings invoked Bellows' competitive nature, "Bellows never warmed to Kent the individual, but he feasted his eyes long and enviously on these pictures, vowing that some day he would go to Monhegan himself and do better ones." (C.H. Morgan, George Bellows: Painter of America, New York, 1965, p. 68) Bellows was not alone in his response to Kent's works and, indeed, the beguiling dichotomy of Maine, at once savage and beautiful has long appealed to artists. The list of luminaries who took the dramatic topography and distinct character of the northern state as a subject includes Frederic Church, Winslow Homer, Marsden Hartley, John Marin and the Wyeth family, among others.
Having previously worked on the more sedate Long Island, New York, where he painted Shore House (Private collection) earlier that year, Bellows was immediately captivated by Monhegan's striking topography. The isle's raw beauty, dramatic coastline and roiling sea provided the ideal scenery to capture in his direct, bravura style and he was captivated by the myriad of pictorial possibilities, writing, "The Island is endless in its wonderful variety. It's possessed of enough beauty to supply a continent." (as quoted in S. Cash, "Life at Sea, 1911-1917" in C. Brock, et al., George Bellows, Washington, D.C., 2012, p. 160)
Bellows' month-long visit to Monhegan reinvigorated him and was the catalyst for a creative outpouring that resulted in a group of powerful large-scale works including Evening Swell that are remarkable in their bold application of paint and compositional design. "The island's combination of arresting quiet, deafening surf, and awe-inspiring beauty that makes an indelible impression on any first-time Monhegan visitor motivated Bellows to work feverishly." (S. Cash, "Life at Sea, 1911-1917" in C. Brock, et al., George Bellows, Washington, D.C., 2012, p. 160) He set out with a group of small panels, producing a series of plein air paintings that he then used as the basis for larger works, which were completed in his studio. Evening Swell is one of four Maine subjects he completed that fall, once he was back in New York, based on his various studies and vivid memories of the place. "He could still see so clearly the surf creaming over Monhegan's granite ledges and hear the wind combing the stiff thin grass on the headlands. All around him were his panels and canvases, as bold and powerful and grey as the island itself." (George Bellows: Painter of America, pp. 145-46) Evening Swell depicts the northside cliffs at Blackhead rising dramatically from a dark sea at twilight and captures the primordial nature of Monhegan and its tempestuous shoreline. Bellows returned to this vista, which captivated other artists including Edward Hopper, in 1913.
Evening Swell is a powerful seascape and an homage to the unique character of Monhegan and its inhabitants in which the act of painting is as much a subject as the fishermen and the landscape. Here Bellows presents a stunningly beautiful and daunting scene that conveys the raw power of nature and his strong visceral response to Monhegan. He employs bold, vigorous brushwork, which in areas approaches pure abstraction, to create an expressive surface that captures the various textures of rocks and sea. He juxtaposes the turbulent water and heavily worked rocks with a quiet horizon line and sky that is composed of longer, softer strokes of paint and more delicate hues, heightening the drama of the landscape. The work is dominated by a tonal palette of ominous grays and blues highlighted with strokes of greens, tans, purples and whites. These highlights of color add complexity to the scene and capture nuances of the shoreline, the water's forceful movement and the chill of the twilight air. They also serve to engage the viewer, drawing one's eye into and around the composition. Through his confident and modern technique, Bellows creates a complex and dynamic scene that conveys the formidable nature of the terrain and sea. This is further heightened by the inclusion of two men in a boat, who are diminutive in the face of nature's glory. Despite their small stature in relation to the overall scene, Bellows places the boat prominently in the foreground and draws the viewer's eye to the figures through his use of brilliant yellow--the brightest color in the painting--for the standing man's overalls. By drawing attention to the men, he underscores the grandeur as well as the danger of the surrounding seascape and the risks inherent to the survival of the island's fishermen.
Although Bellows was drawn to water throughout his career and many of his urban scenes depict the docks and waterside parks of New York, in Maine he was confronted by far more powerful waters than even those he had encountered in various ventures to Long Island. His response was a combination of wonder, awe, reverence and unease that compelled him to return time and again to the subject as he attempted to capture the mysterious essence of the ocean. Dr. Franklin Kelly writes of Bellows' complicated relationship with the sea, "George Bellows was fascinated by the sea, but he was also repelled by it. With its timeless mystery and power the sea inspired him to create some of his most moving and evocative paintings, but it also frustrated him, reminding him of his own inadequacies as he struggled to capture its essential nature on canvas. Often invigorated by watching the relentless energy of great ocean surges, he could equally be daunted by the sea's vastness, finding his thoughts turned back upon himself and upon doubts and insecurities. Like Melville's Ishmael, who understood that 'meditation and water are wedded forever,' Bellows came to know the sea as 'the image of the ungraspable phantom of life;the key to it all'" ("'So Clean and Cold': Bellows and the Sea" in M. Quick, et al., The Paintings of George Bellows, Fort Worth, Texas, 1992, p. 135) Evening Swell is an emotionally charged work in which Bellows expresses through paint his complex relationship with the sea.
Struggle, whether as manifested in the competition of the boxing ring or polo field, the tribulations of life on the street, or the travails of the working class, is a major theme of Bellows' work. In Evening Swell he focuses on the struggle inherent to man's survival along the inhospitable coast of Maine, which is simultaneously threatening and starkly beautiful. James M. Keny highlights another underlying theme of the present work, "Beginning with Shore House, completed in early 1911, and continuing during trips to Maine--Monhegan Island in 1911, 1913 and 1914 and Camden and Matinicus Island in 1916--Bellows addressed man as provider and the ever-present, often isolating demands associated with that role." Indeed, Bellows had married Emma Story the previous year and they had their first child by the time he painted Evening Swell, placing him in the role of provider for his new family. Keny continues, "Perhaps Bellows engaged his new theme because of its more personal meaning for him." ("Brief Garland: A Life of George Bellows," Timeline: A Publication of the Ohio Historical Society, vol. 9, 1992, p. 25)
Evening Swell recalls the work of two older artists whom Bellows admired, James McNeill Whistler, whose work Bellows would have seen the previous year when it was exhibited at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and Winslow Homer, who remains one of the great visual poets of Maine. While more overtly painterly and energetic than Whistler's works, Evening Swell employs similar tonal and compositional sensibilities, particularly in the right half of the work where Bellows' dashing brushwork is tempered by a meditation on color relations and the emotion they elicit in the viewer. This compels one to contemplate the greater implications of a life dependent on the sea and the enormity of the ocean itself. Charles H. Morgan also suggests Bellows' awareness of the concerns of European Impressionism as a catalyst for this more refined aesthetic, "The contrast of white foam and black rocks and of luminous mist and light breaking through dark clouds to shimmer on the swell were effects that showed his new interest in atmosphere. He was familiar with the work of the French Impressionists and their approach to this phenomenon, but he was searching for his own solution in an entirely independent way." (George Bellows: Painter of America, p. 146) Evening Swell is an imposing composition in which Bellows conveys atmosphere through sophisticated paint handling and a deliberately nuanced palette.
Bellows' work was often compared to Homer's during his lifetime and both were widely perceived as generational stand outs--their work simultaneously an embodiment of the past and the future as manifested through highly personal and modern techniques. Dr. Kelly writes of this similarity, which defines all great artists, "Homer was a nineteenth-century artist who managed, as very few of his generation did, to paint pictures in the twentieth century that both summed up what had gone before and embraced the future with a spirit of innovation. Bellows was a twentieth-century artist who, like equally few of his generation, managed to absorb the lessons of the past and transform them into a personal and fully modern idiom." He remarks that, "It is important to understand just what these observers found similar in the works of Homer and Bellows in order to appreciate the latter's full achievements as a painter of the sea. Both were praised for their 'truthfulness' and 'freshness,' for their ability to be 'exhilarating' and 'startling,' for being 'rough, frank, original,' and, perhaps most importantly, for portraying 'force.' Yet both men combined with their skills at depicting the world a strong feeling for abstract design and painterlinessTheir paintings were assertive not only because they depicted scenes brimming with natural and man-made energy, but also because the canvases themselves were alive with artistic energy and purposeAnd it is the underlying awareness of powerful artistic personality--on the one hand of an aging, reclusive 'old master' and, on the other, of a gifted and brashly confident young painter--that ultimately bind the works of the two men together most profoundly." ("'So Clean and Cold': Bellows and the Sea," The Paintings of George Bellows, p. 137)
Evening Swell is defined by a bold and direct character that embodies greater human themes and manifests the unique and daring aesthetic that defines Bellows' best works. The timeless power and importance of this aesthetic was widely recognized by subsequent generations and, even the famed formalist critic Clement Greenberg acknowledged the significance of Bellows' oeuvre in the history of American art, writing in 1949, "George Bellows is one of the most important artists America has produced in this century...like Manet, Bellows modeled his forms broadly, in varying shades of local color, not in gradual grays or blacks. This style was a continuation, essentially, of Manet's phase of impressionism, but... Bellows...extracted something sufficiently new from it, something this writer considers to be still a part of the best American art of the twentieth century." (as quoted in C. Brock, "George Bellows: An Unfinished Life," George Bellows, p. 23)
Oil on canvas
George Wesley Bellows
George Wesley Bellows , 20th Century, Paintings, oil, United States of America, seascape
Newport, Rhode Island, The Art Association of Newport, Second Annual Exhibition, July 1913.
Boston, Massachusetts, St. Botolph Club, Paintings by Five New York Painters, November 24-December 5, 1913, no. 2.
American Federation of Arts travelling exhibition, 1914.
Omaha, Nebraska, Omaha Society of Fine Arts, 1915.
Concord, Massachusetts, Concord Art Centre, Seventh Annual Exhibition of Paintings and Sculptures, May 6-June 3, 1923, no. 4.
Buffalo, New York, Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, Albright Art Gallery, Eighteenth Annual Exhibition of Selected Paintings and Small Bronzes by American Artists, April 20-June 30, 1924, no. 15.
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Memorial Exhibition of the Work of George Bellows, October 12-November 22, 1925, no. 14.
Rochester, New York, The Memorial Art Gallery, A Memorial Exhibition of Paintings by George Wesley Bellows, December 1925, no. 6.
Buffalo, New York, Albright Art Gallery, Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, Memorial Exhibition of the Works of George Bellows, January 10-February 10, 1926, no. 6.
San Diego, California, The Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego, Memorial Exhibition of the Work of George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925), November 10-December 15, 1926.
New York, H.V. Allison & Co., Sea and Shore: Paintings by George Bellows, 1952-53, no. 15.
New York, H.V. Allison & Co., George Bellows, 1962, no. 4.
New York, H.V. Allison & Co., George Bellows, 1964, no. 3.
New York, The Gallery of Modern Art Including The Huntington Hartford Collection, George Bellows: Paintings, Drawings, Lithographs, March 15-May 1, 1966, no. 25.
Amherst, Massachusetts, Amherst College, Mead Art Building, George Wesley Bellows, November 1-20, 1972.
New York, H.V. Allison & Co., George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925): A Selection of Paintings, Drawings and Lithographs, 1985, no. 4.
Cleveland, Ohio, Cleveland Museum of Art, and elsewhere, Reckoning with Winslow Homer: His Late Paintings and their Influence, September 19-November 18, 1990, no. 5.
Los Angeles, California, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and elsewhere, The Paintings of George Bellows, February 16-May 10, 1992.
New York, Berry-Hill Galleries, Inc., American Paintings IV, 1993. New York, Berry-Hill Galleries, Inc., George Bellows, December 2, 1993-January 15, 1994.
Portland, Maine, Portland Museum of Art, The Allure of the Maine Coast: Robert Henri and His Circle, 1903-1918, June 29-October 15, 1995.
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, and elsewhere, George Bellows, June 10-October 8, 2012, no. 58.
30 x 38 in. (76.2 x 96.5 cm.)
Artist's Record Book A, p. 110.
"Five New York Paintings: Opening Exhibition of the St. Botolph Club--Slum Life of the City Illustrated in Pungent Pictures," Boston Evening Transcript, November 21, 1913, p. 14.
Concord Art Centre, Seventh Annual Exhibition of Paintings and Sculptures, exhibition catalogue, Concord, Massachusetts, 1923, p. 8, no. 4.
"The Concord Exhibition: Forty-two Paintings, Many Sculptures and Miniatures Displayed in Colonial Setting--Few Boston Exhibitors--Honors and Medals," Boston Evening Transcript, May 7, 1923.
Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, Eighteenth Annual Exhibition of Selected Paintings and Small Bronzes by American Artists, exhibition catalogue, Buffalo, New York, 1924, p. 10, no. 15.
Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, "Eighteenth Annual Exhibition of Selected Paintings and Small Bronzes by American Artists at the Albright Art Gallery," Academy Notes, vol. XIX, no. 2, July-December 1924, pp. 44, 51.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Memorial Exhibition of the Work of George Bellows, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1925, pp. 25, 51, no. 14, illustrated.
The Memorial Art Gallery, Catalogue of a Memorial Exhibition of Paintings by George Wesley Bellows, exhibition checklist, Rochester, New York, 1925, no. 6.
Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, Memorial Exhibition of the Works of George Bellows, exhibition catalogue, Buffalo, New York, 1926, p. 9, no. 6.
E.S. Bellows, The Paintings of George Bellows, New York, 1929, n.p., no. 27, illustrated.
C.H. Morgan, George Bellows: Painter of America, New York, 1965, pp. 146, 334, illustrated.
The Gallery of Modern Art Including the Huntington Hartford Collection, George Bellows: Paintings, Drawings, Lithographs, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1966, p. 43, no. 25.
D. Braider, George Bellows and the Ashcan School of Painting, New York, 1971, p. 73.
Amherst College, George Wesley Bellows, exhibition checklist, Amherst, Massachusetts, 1972.
D.W. Merrill, A Salute to Maine, New York, 1983, p. 53.
H.V. Allison & Co., George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925): A Selection of Paintings, Drawings and Lithographs, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1985, p. 8, no. 4, illustrated.
B. Robertson, Reckoning with Winslow Homer: His Late Paintings and their Influence, exhibition catalogue, Cleveland, Ohio, 1990, pp. 110-13, 115, fig. 88, illustrated.
M. Quick, et al., The Paintings of George Bellows, exhibition catalogue, Fort Worth, Texas, 1992, pp. 33, 148-49, 168n55, 242, 252, fig. 16, illustrated.
S. May, "All-American: The Paintings of George Bellows," Antiques & Fine Art, March-April 1992, pp. 68-70, illustrated.
Timeline: A Publication of the Ohio Historical Society, vol. 9, 1992, p. 25.
Berry-Hill Galleries, Inc., American Paintings IV, New York, 1993, pp. 96-97, illustrated.
J. Curtis, W. Curtis, F. Lieberman, Monhegan: The Artists' Island, Camden, Maine, 1995, p. 89, illustrated.
J.F. Nicoll, The Allure of the Maine Coast: Robert Henri and His Circle, 1908-1918, exhibition catalogue, Portland, Maine, 1995, pp. 19-20, 33, illustrated.
D.B. Dearinger, ed., Paintings and Sculpture in the Collection of the National Academy of Design, New York, 2004, p. 39.
M.S. Haverstock, George Bellows: An Artist in Action, London, 2007, p. 75, illustrated.
C. Brock, ed., George Bellows, exhibition catalogue, Washington, D.C., 2012, pp. 23, 160, 171, pl. 58, illustrated.
Estate of the above.
Emma S. Bellows, wife of the artist.
Estate of the above.
[With]H.V. Allison & Co., New York.
Charles H. Morgan, Amherst, Massachusetts, 1964.
[With]H.V. Allison & Co., New York.
Berry-Hill Galleries, Inc., New York, 1985.
Private collection, Massachusetts, 1993.
Sotheby's, New York, 22 May 2002, lot 61.
Acquired by the present owner from the above.