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
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.
In December 1909, Bellows executed two Manhattan cityscapes (this one and The Bridge, Blackwell’s Island
The bridge and its surrounding area are discussed in Kenneth T. Jackson, ed., The Encyclopedia of New York City (New Haven, CT, 1995), 211–212, 970, and 1020.
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.
For an early survey of the matter, see Robert W. Deforest and Lawrence Veiller, The Tenement House Problem, 2 vols. (New York, 1903). See also The Encyclopedia of New York City (New Haven, CT), 1161–1163.
“Began Career as Illustrator on Makio,” Lantern, undated clipping in Bellows’s scrapbook, George Bellows Papers, Special Collections Department, Amherst College Library, Amherst, MA; quoted in Marianne Doezema, George Bellows and Urban America (New Haven, 1992), 44.
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.
Blackwell’s Island has had a long history. Captain John Manning bought it in 1668 and retired there in disgrace after surrendering New York to the Dutch in 1673. Early in the 18th century it passed to Manning’s son-in-law, Robert Blackwell, after whom it was named. Blackwell's Island was acquired by the city in 1828. The prison was relocated to Riker's Island in 1934. The Urban Development Corporation of New York State undertook a project to transform Welfare Island into a residential community in 1971 and renamed it Roosevelt Island.
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.”
“Matters of Art,” New York Daily Tribune, Jan. 29, 1911, section II, p. 5; quoted in Marianne Doezema, “The Real New York,” in Michael Quick, Jane Myers, Marianne Doezema, and Franklin Kelly, The Paintings of George Bellows (Fort Worth, TX, 1992), 109.
Bellows similarly juxtaposed an old ship and a steam tug in Silver Day (1912, Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, FL).
September 29, 2016
lower left: Geo Bellows
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.
- Collection of Pictures and Sculpture in the Pavilion of the United States of America, Roman Art Exposition, Rome, 1911, no. 135.
- [George Bellows Exhibition], Madison Gallery, New York, 1911.
- One Hundred and Seventh Annual Exhibition, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 1912, no. 57.
- The MacDowell Club, New York, 1914 [according to the artist's Record Book].
- Department of Fine Arts, Canadian National Exhibition, Toronto, 1915, no. 82.
- Important Paintings by George Wesley Bellows, Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, Ohio, 1931, no. 268.
- Paintings by George Bellows, H.V. Allison & Co., New York, 1944, unnumbered checklist.
- George Bellows: Paintings, Drawings and Prints, Art Institute of Chicago, 1946, no. 8, repro.
- George Bellows: A Retrospective Exhibition, National Gallery of Art, January-February 1957, no. 15, repro.
- Paintings by George Bellows, Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, Ohio, March-April 1957, no. 12.
- The Chester Dale Bequest, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1965, unnumbered checklist.
- 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).
- Peck, Glenn C. George Bellows' Catalogue Raisonné. H.V. Allison & Co. URL: http://www.hvallison.com. Accessed 16 August 2016.
- Bellows, Emma Louise Story. The Paintings of George Bellows. New York, 1929: repro. 17.
- Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds., Treasures from the National Gallery of Art, New York, 1962: 174, color repro.
- Morgan, Charles H. George Bellows. Painter of America. New York, 1965: 102, repro. 318.
- Paintings other than French in the Chester Dale Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 49, repro.
- Young, Mahonri Sharp. "George Bellows: Master of the Prize Fight." Apollo 89 (February 1969): 135, repro.
- American Paintings and Sculpture: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1970: 16, repro.
- Baigell, Matthew. A History of American Painting. New York, 1971: 184, repro.
- Braider, Donald. George Bellows and the Ashcan School of Painting. New York, 1971: 54, 67.
- Young, Mahonri Sharp. The Eight. New York, 1973: 44, color pl. 12.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1980: 27, repro.
- Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1980: 17, 146, repro.
- Williams, William James. A Heritage of American Paintings from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1981: repro. 201, 202, 205.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 572, no. 871, color repro.
- Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. Rev. ed. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1988: 168, repro.
- Kelly, Frankin. "George Bellows' Shore House." Studies in the History of Art 37 (1990): 131, repro. no. 19.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 29, repro.
- Timeline: A Publication of the Ohio Historical Society. October-December 1992:19, repro.
- Oates, Joyce Carol. George Bellows: American Artist. Hopewell, New Jersey, 1995: repro.
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 404, no. 332, color repro.
- Haverstock, Mary Sayre. George Bellows: An Artist in Action. Columbus, Ohio, 2007: 56, color repro.
- 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.
- 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.
- Wolner, Edward W. "George Bellows, Georg Simmel, and Modernizing New York." American Art 29, no. 1 (Spring 2015): 119.
- National Gallery of Art. Highlights from the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Washington, 2016: 274-275, repro.
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.