George Bellows painted his first female nude in the fall of 1906 and titled it simply Nude, Miss Bentham (Barber Institute of Fine Arts). Bellows’s biographer, Charles H. Morgan, characterized this early effort as “academic in its dedication to anatomy and puritanic in its stark realism,” and noted that the artist “hung it prominently in the studio, but rarely exhibited it.” As early as 1905 Bellows had received recognition for his skill in life drawing as a student at the New York School of Art, and by 1910 he was teaching life classes at the Art Students League. That year Bellows affirmed that such classes were a well-established and legitimate means to develop sound draftsmanship. He also acknowledged the prominence of the male body in many of his most famous works, such as Both Members of This Club and Forty-two Kids, when he emphasized how, as opposed to inherently static subjects like Nude with Red Hair, “prize fighters and swimmers are the only types whose muscular action can be painted in the nude legitimately.”
While continuing to teach, Bellows did not produce any paintings of nudes from 1911 to 1914. In 1915, inspired by the example of his mentor Robert Henri, he painted Nude with a Parrot (private collection) and the semiclothed Torso of a Girl with Flowers (Union League Club of Chicago, IL). In 1916 and 1917 Bellows produced a series of lithographs representing single female figures in various poses that resemble studio drawings, as well as a print showing a provocative encounter between two female nudes titled simply Two Girls. His preoccupation at the time with the practice of life drawing is evident in the lithograph The Life Class (The Model, Life Class) (1917, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), a reminiscence of his classes with Henri.
Bellows painted two half-length, seated female nudes in November 1919: Nude Girl with Fruit (private collection) and the striking Nude with a White Shawl (Collection of Dr. and Mrs. David A. Skier, Birmingham, AL). The latter was deemed “immoral” when it was exhibited at the National Arts Club’s annual exhibition in New York in 1922. This controversy reflected the persistent concerns regarding the depiction and censorship of the female nude in American society espoused in the late Victorian period by powerful figures such as Anthony Comstock, whom Bellows had mocked in a 1915 illustration for The Masses titled Exposed at Last!—The Nude is Repulsive to This Man.
Nude with Red Hair was painted at Bellows’s rural studio in Woodstock, New York, in July 1920, as was another half-length nude, Nude with Fan (North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh). The artist described the Gallery’s painting in his Record Book B as “B558 Woman with Red Hair--semi nude with Black Shawl.” The model has been identified as Agnes Tait, a young art student who was attending the Art Students League’s summer school in Woodstock. Both the model’s pose, modestly covering her breasts with her raised left forearm and hand, and the use of light are strongly reminiscent of Titian’s famous Venus with a Mirror [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Titian, Venus with a Mirror, c. 1555, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington. Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.34. Bellows may have known that painting through a reproduction or the many early copies or variants after it, some of them representing only the figure of Venus. He lessened the eroticism implicit in Titian’s classical Venus Pudica pose by shifting the model’s right hand so that it rests on her leg. Bellows’s keen awareness of old master precedents can be traced to his education with Henri and remained in evidence throughout his career, including his final nude subject Two Women (1924, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas), which he based on Sacred and Profane Love (c. 1515, Galleria Borghese, Rome), another famous painting by the great Venetian master of the High Renaissance. Nude with Red Hair and the other late nudes depicting women shuttered away from the outside world in Bellows’s Woodstock studio stand in stark contrast to the public spectacles featured in Bellows’s early, aggressively masculine, and better known boxing scenes.
August 17, 2018