George Bellows was a college dropout. A beginning art student at age 22, he was a member of the National Academy of Design at 27 and the country’s most accomplished lithographer at 35. He died of appendicitis at 43.

Born in 1882, he was a leading figure in the Ash Can School of Art, a realist movement in American art history whose artists created paintings and drawings revolving around everyday life.

Bellows is distinguished for his ability to capture the character and spirit of American life in the early 20th century, doing so with grace humor, anger and dignity.

Fifty-seven of his works – lithographs, drawings, crayon, ink and graphite works on paper and five oil paintings – are on display in “The Powerful Hand of George Bellows: Drawings From the Boston Public Library” exhibit showing through June 1 at the Portland Museum of Art.

The exhibit of works ranging from intimate studies of people Bellows knew to public sporting events and social get-togethers is a scholar’s dream.

It has an impressive interactive gallery. Huge murals created in Bellows’ style by PMA’s education staff hang in a narrow hallway. Urged to become part of the creative process, children and adults are invited to view Bellows’ drawings and then create their own sketches on large drawing pads adhered to the wall. People can take their drawings home or leave them in a portfolio suitcase attached to the wall.

One of the best drawings in the exhibit, a crayon on Strathmore paper, is titled “Sixteen East Gay Street.” It depicts an area of Columbus, Ohio, where Bellows grew up. Its subtle use of grays and intricate shading makes this a little hidden treasure in the exhibit.

One of Bellows’ more well-known works, “Base Hospital,” can be seen in two mediums, crayon and lithography. They are hung attractively near each other, making it easy for viewers to make comparisons.

“A Knock Down” is another famous work by Bellows, created in 1917 in crayon on paper. It is possibly his most well-known work. It depicts a prize fight between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffires that took place July 4, 1910, in Reno. Bellows used a classical pyramid motif in creating the scene of a prize fighter down and a referee counting as the winner stands in triumph. This powerful work reflects the interest and knowledge of the artist who was once an athlete. Hanging beside “A Knock Down” is another version of the same work done in lithography in 1921 called “The White Hope.”

Many of Bellows’ works are social satires of everyday life – people sitting in a cafe, drinking at a bar, eating in a restaurant. A serious and powerful work, “The Law is Too Late,” depicts a lynching.

In works like “The Barricade” and “Return of the Useless,” Bellows makes a social justice statement against war.

Several works in crayon, lithography and an oil painting depict Matinicus Island and its wharves, a highlight of the exhibit. Bellows visited Maine and was captivated by its unspoiled beauty. The oil painting, titled “Matinicus,” is owned by the PMA, a bequest of Elizabeth Noyes, and is included in the graphic art exhibit complementing the show. Again, the public has a chance to see the artist’s work in different mediums hung together in the same show.

Another gem in the exhibit is “An Island in the Sea,” an oil painting on loan from the Columbus (Ohio) Museum of Art, done in 1911 during Bellows’ first visit to Maine. It depicts Monhegan Island in muted mystical colors of gray, silver and blue.

Another outstanding work, “Riverfront No.1,” an oil on canvas created in 1915, depicts young boys in New York City swimming and playing around the docks in lower Manhattan.

My favorite work by Bellows is “Preaching,” a critical satire of Billy Sunday, a zealot preacher (during the first two decades of the 20th century) depicted preaching from a pulpit to a mesmerized and stunned audience. Bellows detested social and religious hypocrisy, something he often satirized. This timeless work was chosen for the cover of the exhibit catalog.

The PMA is at 7 Congress Square. Gallery hours are from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday; and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday. The museum is open free of charge from 5 to 9 p.m. Friday and will be open Mondays after Memorial Day weekend. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and students with ID, $4 for children ages 6-17 and free for children under 6.

Pat Davidson Reef has a master’s degree in education and has taught art history at Catherine McAuley High School in Portland. She has written two children’s books, “Dahlov Ipcar, Artist” and “Bernard Langlais, Sculptor.”


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