Urban Realism and the American Scene

George Bellows (1882–1925)
The Palisades, 1909
Oil on canvas, 30 x 38 1/8 in. (76.2 x 96.8 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.10

Object-George Bellows, The Palisades

A prominent realist painter of modern urban life active in the early twentieth century, George Bellows captured New York City and its inhabitants in numerous paintings, drawings, and prints. The Palisades is part of a series of Hudson River paintings in which the artist demonstrated his mastery of painting snow. Framed by tall trees, this plunging view of the riverbanks conveys the crystalline light and dry chill of a winter day. In the background, the darkened New Jersey Palisades provide a strong counterpoint to the brilliant sky, water, and snow. By juxtaposing complementary colors such as orange and blue, Bellows revealed his adherence to the color theory promoted by the Chicago paint manufacturer Hardesty Maratta (1864–1924), who likened color combinations to chords in music and encouraged the use of strong contrasting colors. The Palisades signals a major shift in Bellows’s approach to both color and composition.

Learn more about this painting on the Terra Foundation website.


Perspective

First laid out in 1872, Riverside Park on the Upper West Side of Manhattan was meant to bring the splendor of the Hudson River Valley into the heart of New York City. Much of it is hillside descending precipitously to the mighty Hudson, while even steeper cliffs, the Palisades of New Jersey, rise on the far bank. In the early twentieth century the park was still a work-in-progress. In the early months of 1909, when George Bellows painted this raw and chill-inducing view, foliage remained sparse, visitors rare, pathways muddy, and the New York Central Railroad cut like a knife along the shoreline. This was one of those liminal areas—of the city but with its back turned to it, no longer natural, not quite urban—which had attracted the artist’s eye almost from the moment he arrived in New York in 1904. His early paintings of the city constitute a rough survey of its ragged edges, from the Brooklyn Bridge sheltering a lone tenement to the docks of Brooklyn, from the teeming Lower East Side to the Battery. Not long before he turned to Riverside Park, Bellows had focused his attention on the hell-mouth whose gaping maw had opened in the middle of Manhattan—the excavation for Pennsylvania Station.

It was Bellows’s genius to perceive the aesthetic interest in such unlovely urban motifs. He captured the dynamism of the explosively growing city in an art that exemplified the epic forces at play at the beginning of what would come to be called “the American century.” And yet in important aspects he was adopting strategies of French avant-garde painting of the previous forty years. The impressionists of Paris were among the first to identify the incursion of the railway as a quintessential contemporary theme. Claude Monet (1840–1926) painted the Parisian Gare Saint-Lazare over and again, locomotives filling the metal train shed with swirling steam. Georges Seurat (1859–1891), in his Bathers at Asnières of 1884 (The National Gallery, London), depicts working-class lads enjoying their day off along the Seine; in the background a train roars across a steel bridge and factory chimneys belch sulphurous fumes; the boys’ respite will be brief. When he arrived in Paris in 1886, Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) sought out vantage points high in Montmartre whence to depict countryside giving way to city, charming windmills to charmless apartment blocks, rows of street lamps where the streets had not yet been laid in. That fascination with transition—not quite one thing, not yet another—is what Bellows brought to New York.

So too his persistent exploration of the city under snow; Riverside Park without it interested him little. More than thirty years earlier, during the French winter of 1874–75, famous for its heavy snowfall, Monet obsessively painted some eighteen views of the town of Argenteuil, every street buried in white. For both artists, perhaps, the challenge was technical. Snow, with its infinite responses to the play of light, is the painter’s ideal vehicle for finding the equivalence between what is depicted and how it is painted, so that paint itself takes on the quality, consistency, and obdurate physicality of snow. That, for both painters, constituted the deep formal challenge of modern painting.

Christopher Riopelle
Curator of Post-1800 Paintings, The National Gallery, London


    Urban Realism and the American Scene

    William Glackens (1870–1938)
    Bal Bullier, c. 1895
    Oil on canvas, 23 13/16 x 32 in. (60.5 x 81.3 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.59
    Maurice Brazil Prendergast (1858–1924)
    The Grand Canal, Venice, c. 1898–99
    Watercolor and graphite on paper, 18 1/8 x 14 1/4 in. (46.0 x 36.2 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.123
    Everett Shinn (1876–1953)
    Theater Scene, 1903
    Oil on canvas, 12 3/4 x 15 1/2 in. (32.4 x 39.4 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.136
    Maurice Brazil Prendergast (1858–1924)
    Salem Willows, 1904
    Oil on canvas, 26 1/4 x 34 1/4 in. (66.7 x 87.0 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.120
    George Luks (1866–1933)
    Knitting for the Soldiers: High Bridge Park, c. 1918
    Oil on canvas, 30 3/16 x 36 1/8 in. (76.7 x 91.8 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.87
    Robert Henri (1865–1929)
    Sylvester, 1914
    Oil on canvas, 32 x 26 in. (81.2 x 66 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund, 2017.2
    Rockwell Kent (1882–1971)
    Cranberrying, Monhegan, c. 1907
    Oil on canvas, 28 1/16 x 38 1/4 in. (71.3 x 97.2 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Gift of Mr. Dan Burne Jones. Image © Plattsburgh State Art Museum, Rockwell Kent Gallery and Collection., C1983.4
    George Bellows (1882–1925)
    The Palisades, 1909
    Oil on canvas, 30 x 38 1/8 in. (76.2 x 96.8 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.10
    Robert Henri (1865–1929)
    Figure in Motion, 1913
    Oil on canvas, 77 1/4 x 37 1/4 in. (196.2 x 94.6 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.69
    Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975)
    Slaves, 1925
    Oil on cotton duck mounted on board, 66 7/16 x 72 3/8 in. (168.8 x 183.8 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund. Image © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York., 2003.4
    Walter Ufer (1876–1936)
    Builders of the Desert, 1923
    Oil on canvas laid down on aluminum, 50 1/8 x 50 1/8 in. (127.3 x 127.3 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.174
    Reginald Marsh (1898–1954)
    Chicago, 1930
    Watercolor, over graphite, on cream wove watercolor paper, 13 7/8 x 20 in. (35.2 x 50.8 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund, 1998.4
    Reginald Marsh (1898–1954)
    Pip and Flip, 1932
    Tempera on canvas mounted on canvas, 48 1/4 x 48 1/4 in. (122.6 x 122.6 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection. Image © Estate of Reginald Marsh / Art Students League, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York ., 1999.96
    Archibald J. Motley, Jr. (1891–1981)
    Between Acts, 1935
    Oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 32 in. (100.3 x 81.3 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund, 2009.1
    Charles Sheeler (1883–1965)
    Bucks County Barn, 1940
    Oil on canvas, 18 3/8 x 28 3/8 in. (46.7 x 72.1 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.135
    Romare Bearden (1911–1988)
    After Church, 1941
    Gouache on brown paper, 22 × 34 1/2 in. (55.9 × 87.6 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund. Image © 2018 Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York., 2015.2
    Edward Hopper (1882–1967)
    Dawn in Pennsylvania, 1942
    Oil on canvas, 24 3/8 x 44 1/4 in. (61.9 x 112.4 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection. Image © Heirs of Josephine Hopper/ Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York., 1999.77
    Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000)
    Bar-b-que, 1942
    Gouache on wove paper, 30 7/8 x 22 1/2 in. (78.4 x 57.2 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund, 2013.1
    Walt Kuhn (1877–1949)
    Clown with Drum, 1942
    Oil on canvas, 60 7/8 x 41 3/8 in. (154.6 x 105.1 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.172
    Edward Hopper (1882–1967)
    Sierra Madre at Monterrey, 1943
    Watercolor with touches of wiping, over a charcoal underdrawing, on heavyweight textured ivory wove watercolor paper, 21 1/4 x 29 3/4 in. (54.0 x 75.6 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1994.18