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Collection Spotlight

George Bellows, The Circus

George Bellows
The Circus, 1912
oil on canvas
gift of Elizabeth Paine Metcalf

After dropping out of college in 1904, the American painter George Bellows moved to New York to study with Robert Henri and begin his career as an artist. As a member of the Ashcan School, Bellows focused on depicting the daily activities of ordinary people. Bellows became famous for his depictions of boxers, street dwellers, sporting events and rowdy, vivacious crowds.

In his masterful 1912 painting The Circus, Bellows used a brisk, dynamic brushstroke, to create a sense of swirling, excited motion within the circus ring. The fast-paced energy this work exudes suggests that Bellows stood in the crowd to spontaneously capture a passing moment on canvas. However, The Circus was in fact painted from memory in the artists’ studio, and a second look reveals a grid of pin holes across the canvas. This careful geometric planning underlying the structure of the work suggests that Bellows was influenced by and followed the color and compositional mathematics of the theorist Hardesty Maratta. The balance is focused around the colorful figure of a girl standing on a white horse. She remains grounded in the center of the canvas with the enthusiastic crowd framing her. The viewer’s eye is drawn into a calculated triangle, from the central performer down to the prominent corner figures in the foreground. Finally, the vertical lines of the receding tent poles and the horizontal bands of the crowd create an organizational grid over the canvas, balancing the painting’s lively activity with a sense of calming control. The year after its completion, this painting was exhibited in the Armory Show of 1913 that introduced European modernism to America.

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