Last updated: January 1, 2013 11:16 pm

George Bellows, Metropolitan Museum, New York

A fearless experimentalist, Bellows was the preeminent painter of New York in the years before the first world war
George Bellows, 'New York', 1911

I suspect I would have liked George Bellows. He was, by all accounts, a charming, adventurous man. His paintings, now on display in a spirit-swelling show at the Metropolitan Museum, brim with brio, empathy and good will, revealing a talented and fearless experimenter. But Bellows’ unpredictability has damaged his reputation. Canon-makers long ago filed him under Ashcan School and tagged him as a painter of sweaty boxers grappling beneath lurid lights. In fact, pugilists account for only a handful of the 600 paintings he produced in his brief and riotously varied career. He died of acute peritonitis in 1925, just as he was trying out new colours, dabbling in different styles, and stumbling towards a new chapter. He was 42.

The exhibition (which travels to London in March) brings us Bellows as a painter of modern life. Like the Parisian Impressionists a generation earlier, he watched his city – New York – devour its own history and topography. Monet seized upon the intrusion of industry into the pastoral landscape; Bellows tracked similar juxtapositions of labour and leisure, wilderness and urbanity.

My favourite of his many New York winterscapes peers down at the western edge of Manhattan, where Frederick Law Olmsted’s Riverside Park is on the verge of completion. “Snow Capped River”, from 1911, takes in the sweep of the Hudson, bounded on the far side by the whipped-cream heights of the Palisades. Tugboats and barges slice through hunks of ice, trespassing on the snowy idyll. But the clouds of hot steam have a wispy white beauty all their own; these working vessels provide a picturesque touch for the spiffy people and their canine friends ambling up Riverside Drive. We can’t see the shiny new palaces on our side of this just-built avenue, but we seem to be enjoying the view from one very expensive window.

In “Rain on the River”, a spring scene, Bellows catches the encroachment of civilised greenery on the rugged spaces of industry. The panorama sweeps from the romantic granite outcrop where Edgar Allen Poe rambled in search of inspiration, down past the pristine sod and gracefully corkscrewing pathways of Olmsted’s fledgling park, to the sooty, clanking railroad tracks and sludge-hued Hudson beyond.

Bellows tracked the Impressionists closely, if not consciously. His river scenes recall the meeting of rust and rusticity at Argenteuil, and his majestic riffs on the construction of Pennsylvania Station echo the many versions of the Gare St Lazare. But while Monet rendered the train shed as a newfangled cathedral, Bellows dug into the primeval muck of excavation. He ogled the gouged-out earth, returning compulsively to the massive pit that seemed to swallow workers alive. We see the great cavity in winter, bathed in filthy snow, slathered in frenzied impasto. There it is again at night, a Stygian valley framed by the twilit hulks of the city rearing all around.

These demonic vistas date from the astonishingly productive period leading up to 1913. That was the year that the Armory Show exploded in New York, subjecting Bellows to the shockwaves of European modernism. He helped put the exhibition together, contributed six paintings and eight drawings, and, once it opened, frequented it with a wary, competitive obsessiveness. The critic Forbes Watson later recalled: “We all met at the Armory Show daily for six weeks. And if Bellows’ faith in himself could have been shaken it would have been shaken then . . . He remained popular . . . but in the eyes of the novelty seekers he and his group were no longer the latest word.”

Bellows’ confidence faltered. His father died in March of that year, just as the Armory Show was closing. Both events in tandem seem to have wrenched the spontaneity from his work. He spent the summer on Monhegan Island in Maine, far from urban exuberance, violence and vitality. A new cloud of gloom hangs over the stoic landscapes he painted there, tainting his confrontations with crashing waves and masses of rock.

He began to disparage his previous work as too haphazard. Just as Cézanne claimed he wanted “to make of Impressionism something solid and durable, like the art of the museums”, Bellows, too, retreated from the transience he had once celebrated. “I have come to the realisation that permanence demands more care,” he wrote. “Old Masters got different results and I want to know how they did it . . . this is the process of Rubens and Titian, Velázquez, Hals and the rest.”

The immediate effect of these musings was disastrous: a series of melodramatic and self-importantly archaic depictions of contemporary miseries. He gave vent to his propagandistic side in “The Germans Arrive”, a ghastly first world war tableau of Prussian helmets, grey uniforms, bloodied sword and severed limbs. After the war, when many European artists went neo-classical, Bellows wrestled with old traditions too. “Fisherman’s Family”, from 1923, is a Yankee flight into Egypt beneath a magenta New England sky. In “Nude with Hexagonal Quilt” he went toe to toe with Titian. No longer certain what made Bellows Bellows, he devolved into a mediocre painter of embarrassing ambition.

It’s tempting to see this period as some kind of valedictory spasm of mannerist vision, or a principled retreat from fashion. But of course the Met’s show narrates only half a career. Bellows never had a late period, only a gorgeous bloom, a midlife crisis, and a freak early death, followed by one of those poignant historical counterfactuals: what if he had lived to be an old man, survived Abstract Expressionism, and let himself be rattled again by Pop? If he had kept watching New York reinvent itself, could he have done the same?

Until February 18, www.metmuseum.org; then at the Royal Academy, London, from March 16

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