George Bellows – The Lone Tenement

22 Jan

The first thing I love about this painting is the title: The Lone Tenement. Doesn’t it sound so evocative of someone lonely, solitary, sad and abandoned? I say “someone” because both the title and the painting awake strong feelings in my heart; I almost want to hug the lonesome tenement and make its loneliness go away. I like to imagine that this is exactly what George Bellows did in his own way; by painting the tenement he preserved a memory of it for all times.

George Bellows, The Lone Tenement, December 1909

George Bellows’s painting shows a lonely building which stands as a relic surviving from an old neighbourhood block. The sight of the tall isolated building reminds me of a misunderstood, melancholy human figure from one of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings. In a cold December twilight, the lonely building stands on the outskirts of New York City as the sad witness of the urban expansion and progress and the last relic of the old. Thickly, richly applied paint and those dazzling orange and lavender shades somewhat oppose the sombre subject. If there is an expression ‘Living in the moment’, than I’m calling this painting ‘Painting in the moment’ because this building stood there lonely and vulnerable in December 1909 when Bellows painted this, but perhaps if he’d waited a month longer it wouldn’t have been there at all. And a month earlier, two more buildings would have been there too. In this painting, Bellows turned an ugly sight that most people wouldn’t even notice into something beautiful, lyrical and able to awake strong emotions.

George Bellows (1882-1925) was an American painter connected with the group of painters called The Ashcan School who concentrated on portraying the everyday reality of the city that never sleeps: New York City. In his last years, Bellows focused on domestic scenes and portraits of his wife and two daughters, but early in his career he painted urban New York and some very well known boxing scenes. Bellows was the City’s greatest portraitist in the beginning of the twentieth century; he portrayed the disappearance of the old and intimate New York and scenes that interested him were the demolitions of old neighbourhoods, building of new bridges and train stations, construction sites, and places where the urban meets the wild nature surrounding the City. Each of his paintings has a distinct mood and if you concentrate you can almost hear the sounds in the distance and smell the air. Bellows observed and painted meticulously the City’s rapid change, its vivacious energy, its joys, sorrows and struggles for a sense of identity in a never ending flow of change. Here is a quote from the magazine Harper’s Weekly from 1869 in connection to Bellows’s portrayal of a culture that is always rushing and always changing: “In London or Paris you may see some relic of past centuries; these are reverenced and preserved as long as they endure, but New York is a series of experiments, and every thing which has lived its life and played its part is held to be dead, and is buried, and over it grows a new world.”

When I daydream of New York, my visions are pink and soft-edged like clouds and shaped by Lou Reed’s songs and the street-wise groovy rock ‘n’ roll of Velvet Underground, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe’s romance as artists working side by side, Edie Sedgwick on one of the legendary parties wearing huge earrings and talking to Andy Warhol, Sid Vicious and Nancy kissing in an alleyway in the film “Sid and Nancy” (1986), Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane walking hand in hand with Katrina in the last scene of “The Sleepy Hollow” (1999) as snow starts falling gently… so being introduced to Bellows’s art and gazing through New York City through his eyes is just adding to the richness of my daydreams!

Rembrandt, The Mill, 1645-48

In connection to the sentiment of seeing the building in the full scale of emotions that you would see a human being with, I will mention Rembrandt’s darkly romantic and hauntingly beautiful “The Mill” which shows a scenery and a mill bursting with emotions. It’s more than a landscape and the Mill appears more like a melancholy loner than just a mill.

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