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Robert Torchia, “George Bellows/My Family/1916,” American Paintings, 1900–1945, NGA Online Editions, https://purl.org/nga/collection/artobject/61353 (accessed February 17, 2019).

 

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Overview

During the summer of 1916 George Bellows and his family vacationed in Camden, Maine, and Bellows began to experiment with plein air portraiture in which he attempted to integrate the human figure with the outdoors. He produced two nearly identical versions of a monumental portrait of his wife and two daughters that summer: My Family and Study of Emma and the Children (now at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Although the relationship between the two is unclear, it is generally assumed that the Boston work is a preparatory study for the Gallery’s painting. Both versions are unfinished, possibly because Bellows could not resolve the relationship between his subjects and their surroundings, a problem that he addressed more successfully later that summer in the plein air portrait Emma in an Orchard (now at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, Jacksonville, FL). While Bellows was certainly influenced by the French impressionists, most notably Pierre Auguste Renoir, Pierre Bonnard, and Edouard Vuillard, the emphasis on geometric forms in My Family suggests that he was also keenly aware of the example of Paul Cézanne.

Entry

From 1915 to 1920 George Bellows participated in four exhibitions organized by the National Association of Portrait Painters, a group that had been founded in 1912 for the purpose of avoiding “the tiresomely conventional and perfunctory portrait.”[1] During the summer of 1916, when the artist and his family were staying in Camden, Maine, Bellows began to experiment with plein air portraiture in which he attempted to integrate the human figure with the outdoors. Bellow’s struggle to finalize this new style is confirmed by two monumental portraits that Bellows left unfinished: My Family and the nearly identical Study of Emma and the Children  [fig. 1]. Although the relationship between the two versions is unclear, it is generally assumed that the latter was a preparatory study for the former.[2] While Bellows altered the palette from red and purple to green and purple, both show his wife, Emma, reclining in a hammock with their young daughter Jean by her side and their older daughter Anne, whose back is turned toward the viewer, about to climb in and join them. They are sheltered from the sun by a prominent striped awning that runs along the top margin of the composition. The figures are framed by dense foliage in the foreground and at the right and left, and the background comprises a verdant landscape with a house. The overall effect is one of warmth and domesticity.

Jane Myers has noted that in these two paintings “Bellows daringly evoked a range of European sources, from the English ‘conversation piece’ of the 18th century to the avant-garde, tapestry-like paintings of the French Nabis, Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard.”[3] The emphasis on geometric forms, however, suggests that Bellows was preoccupied by the example of Paul Cézanne. In this respect he was probably following the advice of fellow artist Leon Kroll, who, at the urging of Bellows’s mentor Robert Henri, had joined Bellows in Camden in the summer of 1916. Kroll rented a house next to the Bellows family, and the two artists worked together.[4] The former had just begun “to assimilate the French master’s lessons into his own work.”[5] Kroll encouraged his colleague to investigate impressionism and postimpressionism, and later recollected: “I gave Bellows some criticism every day. He was in a rut, and he loved the criticism.”[6] Kroll’s own forays into plein air portraiture that summer are documented by two paintings of the Bellows family: Summer Days, Camden, Maine, The Bellows Family (1916, Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, MA) and In the Country [fig. 2].

Bellows may have abandoned the two family portraits because he was unable to resolve the relationship between his human figures and their natural surroundings. His family is almost completely overwhelmed by their environment and fail to stand out as the proper subject. The culmination of Bellows’s experimentation with the impressionist plein air portrait in Maine that summer is Emma in an Orchard [fig. 3], a considerably smaller and more fully resolved portrait of his wife inspired in part by Édouard Manet’s Madame Manet in the Conservatory (1879, Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo).

Bellows made a third version of My Family in the form of his 1916 lithograph Mother and Children [fig. 4] that was reproduced in the radical leftist magazine The Masses (June 1917) under the title June Again.[7] The contours of the forms are noticeably less geometric than in either of the paintings, and Jean is represented as an infant rather than a toddler. In 1923 Bellows returned to the subject in the magnificent, if far more conventional, portrait of his wife and daughters, Emma and Her Children (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Bellows’s depictions of his family were in keeping with Henri’s belief that modernism was a capacious term encompassing not only radical political agendas and pictorial experimentation but also more conservative subject matter and a knowledge of and reverence for artistic precedents and traditions.

Robert Torchia

August 17, 2018

Provenance

The artist [1882-1925]; by inheritance to his wife, Emma S. Bellows [1884-1959]; her estate; purchased May 1967 through (H.V. Allison & Co., New York) by Paul Mellon, Upperville, Virginia; gift 1983 to NGA.

Exhibition History
1984
George Bellows: The Personal Side, Museum of Arts and Sciences, Macon, Georgia, 1984, fig. 15.
1986
Gifts to the Nation: Selected Acquisitions from the Collections of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1986, unnumbered checklist.
Bibliography
n.d.
Peck, Glenn C. George Bellows' Catalogue Raisonné. H.V. Allison & Co. URL: http://www.hvallison.com. Accessed 16 August 2016.
1992
American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 31, repro.
1992
Quick, Michael, Jane Myers, Marianne Doezema, and Franklin Kelly. The Paintings of George Bellows. Exh. cat. Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Columbus (Ohio) Museum of Art; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, 1992-1993. New York, 1992: 201-202, fig. 29.
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