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The Marvelous MET and the Bewitching George Bellows

NYC History NYC Story

Every tour guide knows that January and February are a time to hunker down, live light, and prepare for the busy season that rolls up in March, just like your favorite perennials. For some, that might mean catching up on some classic films (Matt Baker) checking out some live music (Matt Apter) or hell, for some of us that means its time to get that long overdue knee surgery! (Much love and a speedy recovery to Matt Cummings and Kristen Singleton!)

But for many art-loving New Yorkers, this is the perfect time of the year to visit one of our beloved museums. So this past Wednesday, Jonah and I enjoyed a marvelous afternoon at New York’s best suggested-donation art museum in town: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Remember folks, the $25 at the door is only their recommended price! Though it’s always important to support the arts, don’t feel guilty about shelling out a few bucks to one of the most heavily endowed art museums in the world. Located on 5th ave between 77th and 81st streets, The Met was founded in 1870 by a group of wealthy philanthropists, artists, and collectors to be the American equivalent of Paris’ Louvre.

The Met holds one of the largest, most comprehensive collections of art in the country, spanning 6 continents and over 5000 years of artwork, dating back to 3000 B.C. One could spend exactly ten seconds at each piece of artwork from open to close and it would take a month to see everything the Met has to offer!

So when you go there, you have to have a strategy. Jonah and I spent four hours with some 20th century impressionists, a dose of Matisse, a lil’ bit of Renaissance European paintings, and a dash of 21st century photography, but the main exhibit I was excited about was the work of early 20th century New Yorker George Bellows.

Bellows was born in 1882 in Columbus, Ohio and attended Ohio State University where he played baseball and basketball before moving to New York and studying fine art under Robert Henri at the New York School of Art. Bellows chose to paint what many considered to be crude subjects – boxers, the lives of the poor and downtrodden, when such subjects were considered uncouth. Bellows co-founded the Ashcan school movement, and his painting “Cliff Dwellers” (a reference to the way that poor residents of the tenements all crowded the windows and fire escapes of their homes in summer months) made a huge impact on both the art world and the growing socialist politics of the time.

Bellows ended up doing many illustrations for the left-wing newspaper “The Masses” but left the paper to pursue his artistic vision unencumbered by political ideology. This is when he began his arguably greatest work by painting great boxing matches. These paintings exhibited the raw, visceral masculinity and aggression of what some called barbaric ritual and others called “sweet science.” Either for or against, there’s no arguing the kinetic energy displayed on the canvas.

george bellows metropolitan museum new york tour guides

Like many New Yorkers, as he grew older and started a family, Bellows moved out of the city to Woodstock, New York. He spent his final years painting natural landscapes before he died of a ruptured appendix, far too young, at the age of 42.

Many folks aren’t too inclined to spend a day admiring “fine art”. Such museums and their wares are considered too high-brow, effete or inaccessible for the average work-a-day New Yorker (or tourist.) If you fall into this category, simply head uptown to the Met and spend a little time with Bellows, whom, after a long day of painting, I could imagine grabbing a pint at McSorelys and bitterly grousing about how Jack Dempsey “should’a murdered dat bum!”

By Gideon Levy

George Bellows Drinking At the Bar

George Bellows exhibit is on display at the Met until Feb 18th, 2013

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