Although George Bellows is best-known for his depictions of urban street views and intensely physical prizefighting bouts, he also painted some one hundred forty portraits throughout his career. Among the most successful were his portrayals of family members, especially of his wife Emma and...
Although George Bellows is best-known for his depictions of urban street views and intensely physical prizefighting bouts, he also painted some one hundred forty portraits throughout his career. Among the most successful were his portrayals of family members, especially of his wife Emma and daughters Anne and Jean. Freed from the necessity of pleasing patrons of commissioned portraits who were most often interested in apt likenesses, Bellows was able to invest the images of his relatives with more emphasis on their character and inner life. Bellows's empathy for his wife, whom he adored, was especially evident in the seven extant paintings he completed of her alone-he destroyed several other renderings of her according to his record book-and in group portraits such as "Emma and Her Children" (25.105). "Emma in the Black Print" was one of two portraits of his wife that Bellows painted in Middletown, Rhode Island during the summer of 1919; the other portrait, "Emma in the Purple Dress" (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), resembles the Museum's picture in composition, background, old-fashioned dress, and seriousness. Emma Story was a fellow art student at William Merritt Chase's school in Manhattan when Bellows first met her. He courted her for five years before she finally consented to marry him in 1910. In one of his letters to her, he wrote, "Can I tell you that your heart is in me and that your portrait is in all my work?" (Jane Myers, "'The Most Searching Place in the World': Bellows and Portraiture," in Michael Quick et al, The Paintings of George Bellows, exh. cat., Fort Worth, Amon Carter Museum, 1992, p. 207). During the late teens and the 1920s, Bellows was inspired to create portraits of deep solemnity and monumentality after experiencing the 1917 memorial exhibition of one of his artistic heroes, Thomas Eakins. Like Eakins, who frequently posed his sitters in historical garb, Bellows painted Emma wearing a black print dress, reminiscent of the clothing worn by women in the 1860s with its pinched waist, pointed bodice, and full skirt (Michael Quick, "Technique and Theory: The Evolution of George Bellows's Painting Style," in Quick et al, p. 71). The use of historical dress carried with it a sense of nostalgia for an idealized American past, and in Eakins's case, coincided with the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876. Using Eakins's approach to portraiture, Bellows set Emma against a dark background. Her features, the blue, black, and white print of her dress, and her hat are accentuated by a strong light from the left. Bellows placed a lighter rectangular halo behind Emma's head, suggesting a curtained window in the background, and repeated the shape in the square opening of the bodice. The geometric underpinnings of the composition are the result of Bellows's innate sense of design together with his adherence to the "dynamic symmetry" theories of Jay Hambidge. Bellows became a disciple of Hambidge, a Canadian-born artist, in 1917. Hambidge advocated using a series of geometrical formulas to establish the relationships of squares and rectangles within a composition. Many artists in both the United States and Canada used Hambidge's flexible system of ratios, and it appealed to Bellows particularly because of his own mathematical interests. It is, however, the sympathetic portrayal of a somber, introspective woman that viewers remember more than the stable composition, the historic dress, and the dark background. As one of Bellows's biographers stated, "Of the long series of portraits of Mrs. Bellows, "Emma in the Black Print" and "Emma at the Piano" linger longest in one's memory" (Peyton Boswell, Jr. George Bellows, New York: Crown Publishers, 1942, p. 20). Four years after Bellows painted "Emma in the Black Print," a wealthy Boston collector with a keen eye saw the portrait and decided to buy it. John T. Spaulding had been interested in Bellows's work since 1918 when he and his artist friend Charles Hovey Pepper organized an exhibition for the Boston Art Club that included paintings by George Luks, Rockwell Kent, and Bellows. It was the first time that non-Boston artists had been represented in an exhibition at the Club. As a result of his experience organizing exhibitions, Spaulding began collecting American art, including works by Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer, Robert Henri, and Luks. Spaulding bought "Emma in the Black Print" for $3000 in 1923 and bequeathed it to the Museum in 1948 with the rest of his illustrious collection. Janet Comey
Lower right: Geo Bellows
The artist; with Frank K. M. Rehn, New York; to John T. Spaulding, Boston, 1923; to MFA, 1948, bequest of John T. Spaulding.
Bequest of John T. Spaulding