Lush and undulating, this landscape is a painterly feast laid out for us by Bellows. The painter and his family had summered at Middletown, Rhode Island, north of Newport, in 1918 and they returned in 1919, after the end of World War I. It appears that this painting was done on an excursion from Middletown to Sakonnet on the other side of the Sakonnet River, seen in the distance. The river (really a tidal strait) was less than a mile across at its widest point and Middletown is some ten miles distant. The area descends from rolling hills to marshes and salt meadows that are still relatively undisturbed.1
An intimate aura suffuses the picture, and the green landscape envelopes the rocky foreground outcropping which is the stage for three children and a dog. (Bellows even rings the rock with the deep green.) The girls are his daughters, Anne and Jean, and the boy was Joseph Carr, son of a local farmer. Although Bellows was very much involved with portraiture during this summer, the children are not portraits but simply quiet figures in a strong light.
We sense that the children are important to the artist, but their immobility and the barrier-like rock is striking. There is a peculiar duality to the scene, two contrasting motifs, as if he planned the landscape first (he often favored a high viewpoint) and then introduced the children and rock as a more personal note. In fact, the rock appears a likely place from which he could have painted the verdant sweep beyond, but it is not clear from what viewpoint he sees the children. His decision to obscure his viewpoint means that we do not enter the painting, we remain outside observers of the figures as well as the landscape.
Though the rock itself impedes our view it is boldly painted with lively, improvisatory criss-cross brushwork, while the children are painted in broad patches of color with blurred contours in the bright sun. The dominant yellows and greens of their clothes relate them to the light green lawn beyond them, the place from which they have climbed to this outpost. That place below is superbly painted and has the feeling of a charmed spot, especially at the left where the billowy trees protect the white houses. In the far distance, beneath the narrow strip of clouds and sky, lies the deep blue river and the hills toward Middletown. In spite of the title it is the landscape beyond the three children that is heart of his painting.
George Bellows was one of America’s finest painters of the early twentieth century who excelled in landscapes, cityscapes, portraiture, and sporting pictures.
He is perhaps most famous for his boxing paintings. He was also an important lithographer. As an artist in the realist tradition, he is seen as absorbing the achievement of the great Americans whose lives overlapped his—Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins. His achievement was memorable, and his death at forty-two deprived us of a major painter at his apogee.
Essay by William Kloss, Art in the White House, 2nd edition (Washington, DC: White House Historical Association, 2008), 251. Copyright © 2008 by White House Historical Association.
1 See Charles H. Morgan, George Bellows, Painter of America (New York: Reynal & Company, 1965), 225. This early study of Bellows relies on correspondence and other documents, though it is occasionally unreliable. A more recent study is Michael Quick et al., The Paintings of George Bellows (Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1992).