Admission is always free Directions

Open today: 10:00 to 5:00

Reader Mode
 

Cut-and-paste citation text:

Robert Torchia, “George Bellows/The Lone Tenement/1909,” American Paintings, 1900–1945, NGA Online Editions, http://purl.org/nga/collection/artobject/46558 (accessed December 05, 2016).

 

Export as PDF


Export from an object page includes entry, notes, images, and all menu items except overview and related contents.
Export from an artist page includes image if available, biography, notes, and bibliography.
Note: Exhibition history, provenance, and bibliography are subject to change as new information becomes available.

PDF  
 
Version Link
Thu Sep 29 00:00:00 EDT 2016 Version

You may download complete editions of this catalog from the catalog’s home page.

Overview

Like many American artists of his generation, George Bellows was interested in the various urban construction projects that transformed New York City into an ultramodern metropolis. By the time he commenced work on The Lone Tenement in December 1909, he had completed four paintings devoted to the excavation site of the new Pennsylvania Station, culminating in the Gallery’s Blue Morning (painted in March 1909). The Lone Tenement represents the nearly complete Blackwell’s Island Bridge (now known as the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge or 59th Street Bridge), which passes over Blackwell’s Island (now known as Roosevelt Island), linking midtown Manhattan with the borough of Queens. Although the bridge was an impressive engineering feat and a symbol of progress, Bellows chose to focus instead on an abandoned, old tenement building and a group of desultory figures warming themselves by a fire. Such tenement buildings were associated with a host of social ills because of their impoverished and often immigrant residents. Bellows has imbued the composition with a sense of eerie wistfulness, recording the precarious positions of those who were being displaced to make way for the future.

The impact of the painting is strengthened by the artist’s technical mastery. Paint is applied in variety of ways, from passages of thick impasto just to the left of the tenement building to a series of quick calligraphic marks used to describe a group of figures milling outside the building to the right. Bellows’s bold, expressive palette of oranges, golds, and violets, especially evident in the upper left quadrant of the canvas, is also distinctive.

Entry

In December 1909, Bellows executed two Manhattan cityscapes (this one and The Bridge, Blackwell’s Island [fig. 1]) depicting the nearly completed Blackwell’s Island Bridge, now known as the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge or 59th Street Bridge [fig. 2]. These paintings, displaying the artist’s bravura style, are thematically linked to his four views of the Pennsylvania Station excavation site (e.g., the Gallery’s Blue Morning) in that they depict a major construction project in the modernization of New York City. The third of eight structures built across the East River, the Queensboro Bridge passes over Blackwell’s Island (now known as Roosevelt Island), linking midtown Manhattan with Long Island City in the borough of Queens. It was designed by the municipal department of bridges and completed in 1909 at a cost of about $20.8 million. The steel, two-tier bridge with two cantilevered spans was designed by Gustav Lindenthal and decorated with ornate ironwork and finials by the architect Henry Hornbostel. It is noteworthy as the first major bridge in New York City to depart from the suspension form.[1]

The Bridge, Blackwell’s Island, with a view from beneath and slightly south of the bridge, looking across the East River over Blackwell’s Island toward Long Island City, was painted first. Bellows then produced The Lone Tenement, which depicts a solitary, six-story tenement building at the base of the bridge on the Manhattan side of the East River that, for some reason, had not been demolished when the area was razed. The tenement stands in the center of the composition, to the left of one of the bridge’s supporting piers, and is shown in a three-quarter view so that its front, distinguishable by the fire escape, and windowless sidewall, bearing the remnants of old advertising posters, face the viewer. The fence around the structure’s entrance indicates that it has been abandoned and may be awaiting demolition. A cluster of sketchily delineated human figures are gathered in the left foreground amid the expanse of muddy, half-melted snow, warming themselves before a fire. Two bare, narrow trees on the left echo the dilapidated state of the tenement building and contribute to the scene’s aura of desolation and abandonment. The bird’s-eye vista is oriented toward the northeast, encompassing Manhattan on the left, the East River, Blackwell’s Island, and the borough of Queens on the opposite shore.

Tenements were multiunit residential buildings first designed in the middle of the 19th century to serve as cheap rental housing for New York’s growing population of poor and working-class immigrants. These dank, dreary, and overcrowded dwellings soon became notorious for their unsanitary conditions. Social reformers identified tenements as breeding places of crime, disease, and poverty, and sought legislation to improve their conditions.[2] The Tenement House Law of 1901 established higher standards of construction for new buildings and created the Tenement House Department to modernize what were thenceforward called “old law” tenements. Bellows, like his Ashcan School colleagues, often used tenement buildings in his views of impoverished neighborhoods like Manhattan’s Lower East Side and was certainly aware of their more sinister connotations. When the artist was asked about the tenements in his Excavation at Night (1908, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR), he responded: “Those tenement houses behind the excavation always give me the creeps. They’re just ordinary houses—but there is something about them that gets me.”[3] He later used tenements as the setting in Cliff Dwellers [fig. 3].

Blackwell’s Island also had numerous negative associations, because it was the site of an almshouse, a workhouse, and a penitentiary. By 1921, these institutions had become so notorious for overcrowding, violence, and drug trafficking that the city tried to improve the island’s reputation by renaming it Welfare Island.[4] But despite its ominous allusions, The Lone Tenement is a remarkably expressive and appealing composition, in which mystery and an aura of plaintive eloquence is communicated through the artist’s exceptionally fluid brushwork and manipulation of light and color. Paint is applied in a variety of ways, from passages of thick impasto just to the left of the tenement building to a series of quick calligraphic marks used to describe a group of figures milling outside the building to the right. Bellows’s bold, expressive palette of oranges, golds, and violets, especially evident in the upper left quadrant of the canvas, is also distinctive.

When The Lone Tenement was exhibited in Bellows’s first one-man show at the Madison Art Galleries in 1911, a reviewer characterized it as “a lonely tenement house in a squalid district,” and remarked on the artist’s habit of depicting “the rough and raw side of the Metropolis.”[5] Bellows may have wanted to convey a sense of the despoliation and lost communities that progress often leaves in its wake, or show that the status of the disenfranchised remains unaltered, and is perhaps even worsened, by urban modernization. The faceless wraiths cut adrift in the foreground seem as outmoded as the three-masted ship docked at the left, which had been rendered obsolete by such vessels as the steam-powered tugboat that churns along in the river.[6] If it is not possible to fully discern Bellows’s attitude to the dispossessed underclasses depicted in The Lone Tenement, it is clear that he was responding to his teacher Robert Henri’s plea to make the neglected and overlooked areas of New York, where so many lived, worked, and died, primary subjects of modern art.

Robert Torchia

September 29, 2016

Inscription

lower left: Geo Bellows

Provenance

The artist [1882-1925]; by inheritance to his wife, Emma S. Bellows [1884-1959]; purchased 3 February 1945 through (H.V. Allison & Co., New York) by Chester Dale [1883-1962], New York; bequest 1963 to NGA.

Exhibition History
1911
Collection of Pictures and Sculpture in the Pavilion of the United States of America, Roman Art Exposition, Rome, 1911, no. 135.
1911
[George Bellows Exhibition], Madison Gallery, New York, 1911.
1912
One Hundred and Seventh Annual Exhibition, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 1912, no. 57.
1914
The MacDowell Club, New York, 1914 [according to the artist's Record Book].
1915
Department of Fine Arts, Canadian National Exhibition, Toronto, 1915, no. 82.
1931
Important Paintings by George Wesley Bellows, Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, Ohio, 1931, no. 268.
1944
Paintings by George Bellows, H.V. Allison & Co., New York, 1944, unnumbered checklist.
1946
George Bellows: Paintings, Drawings and Prints, Art Institute of Chicago, 1946, no. 8, repro.
1957
George Bellows: A Retrospective Exhibition, National Gallery of Art, January-February 1957, no. 15, repro.
1957
Paintings by George Bellows, Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, Ohio, March-April 1957, no. 12.
1965
The Chester Dale Bequest, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1965, unnumbered checklist.
2012
George Bellows, National Gallery of Art, Washington; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2012-2013, pl. 31 (shown only in Washington).
Bibliography
n.d.
Peck, Glenn C. George Bellows' Catalogue Raisonné. H.V. Allison & Co. URL: http://www.hvallison.com. Accessed 16 August 2016.
1929
Bellows, Emma Louise Story. The Paintings of George Bellows. New York, 1929: repro. 17.
1962
Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds., Treasures from the National Gallery of Art, New York, 1962: 174, color repro.
1965
Morgan, Charles H. George Bellows. Painter of America. New York, 1965: 102, repro. 318.
1965
Paintings other than French in the Chester Dale Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 49, repro.
1969
Young, Mahonri Sharp. "George Bellows: Master of the Prize Fight." Apollo 89 (February 1969): 135, repro.
1970
American Paintings and Sculpture: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1970: 16, repro.
1971
Baigell, Matthew. A History of American Painting. New York, 1971: 184, repro.
1971
Braider, Donald. George Bellows and the Ashcan School of Painting. New York, 1971: 54, 67.
1973
Young, Mahonri Sharp. The Eight. New York, 1973: 44, color pl. 12.
1980
American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1980: 27, repro.
1980
Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1980: 17, 146, repro.
1981
Williams, William James. A Heritage of American Paintings from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1981: repro. 201, 202, 205.
1984
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 572, no. 871, color repro.
1988
Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. Rev. ed. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1988: 168, repro.
1990
Kelly, Frankin. "George Bellows' Shore House." Studies in the History of Art 37 (1990): 131, repro. no. 19.
1992
American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 29, repro.
1992
Timeline: A Publication of the Ohio Historical Society. October-December 1992:19, repro.
1995
Oates, Joyce Carol. George Bellows: American Artist. Hopewell, New Jersey, 1995: repro.
2004
Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 404, no. 332, color repro.
2007
Haverstock, Mary Sayre. George Bellows: An Artist in Action. Columbus, Ohio, 2007: 56, color repro.
2012
Brock, Charles, et al. George Bellows. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2012-2013. Washington and New York, 2012: 9, 26, 94, 108, 109, 112, 299, pl. 31.
2013
Corbett, David Peters. The American Experiment: George Bellows and the Ashcan Painters, with Katherine Bourguignon and Christopher Riopelle. London, 2013: 28-31, 46, color fig. 12.
2015
Wolner, Edward W. "George Bellows, Georg Simmel, and Modernizing New York." American Art 29, no. 1 (Spring 2015): 119.
2016
National Gallery of Art. Highlights from the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Washington, 2016: 274-275, repro.
Technical Summary

The plain-weave, medium-weight fabric support has been glue lined to a heavier plain-weave fabric and mounted on a nonoriginal stretcher. The artist applied paint in multiple layers of thick, impastoed brushstrokes, sometimes using a palette knife as well. He employed both translucent and opaque paint mixtures, alternating between wet-into-wet and wet-into-dry techniques. In raking light it is possible to see large brushstrokes beneath the area of the tenement building that do not correspond to the design on the surface. No infrared or x-radiograph examination has been conducted to explain this aberrant brushwork; perhaps there is another painting beneath. Craquelure has developed in the most thickly applied passages, and extensive areas of wrinkling appear throughout the surface. A thick, glossy, discolored surface coating was removed in a 2009 conservation treatment. At that time, small losses concentrated in the light areas of the sky, the blue of the river, and the trees on the left were inpainted, and a new synthetic varnish was applied.