Thursday, May 9, 2013

The George W. Bellows House -- No. 146 E 19th Street


Bellows added the expansive skylight and oversized center window to accomodate his studio.  -- photo by Alice Lum
In 1831 Samuel B. Ruggles hatched an ambitious plan for an elegant private park lined with mansions on what had been part of James Duane’s Gramercy Farm.  By the 1850s the blocks surrounding Gramercy Park were quickly developing.   On East 19th Street between Irving Place and Third Avenue, a block to the south, three-story Greek Revival homes lined the street.  Most of them clad in brick, they all had similar architectural features and were built for financially-comfortable, but not wealthy, buyers.

No. 146 East 19th Street was home to John Baker and his wife.  The joy of the birth of their son, Sperry, was tragically ended when the infant died on Sunday March 19, 1855.  Two days later at 1:00 in the afternoon the baby boy’s funeral was held in the parlor here.

Jane Farrell was living here in 1873.  She had an unpleasant run-in with James Anderson on August 13th of that year when the crook snatched her pocketbook containing $23.   Anderson was caught and in court pleaded innocent to stealing the purse because it had been recovered.  He pled guilty, instead, to “an attempt.”

He was sent to the penitentiary for two years.

Fifteen years later the house was being used as the office of what its advertisements called “the old and celebrated Medical Institute.”   Claiming to have cured 15,000 men “in a few years,” the questionable Institute promised to heal numerous male sexual problems.

An advertisement placed in The Sun on December 1, 1889 boasted “All secret and private diseases of men cured in a few days; no charge unless cured; health, lost manhood restored; suffer no longer; cure is certain; bear in mind practice makes perfect.”

How long the Medical Institute stayed in the house is unclear; however by turn of the century Mrs. Anna L. Christensen ran her Swedish Employment Bureau from here with her partner, Miss Mina S. Johnson.  The women helped newly-arrived Swedes find respectable employment in their new country.

The Bureau was in the house through 1909, after which it once again became a private home.  In 1910 it was purchased by artist George W. Bellows.  At the time architect Frederick Junius Sterner had already begun transforming many of the old houses into up-to-date homes in fanciful Tudor, Gothic and Mediterranean styles.  The block quickly attracted artistic residents like Robert Chanler and actresses Ethel Barrymore, Helen Hayes and the Gish sisters.

Unlike some of his neighbors, Bellows did not give his pre-Civil War home a facelift.  He opted to retain the old Greek Revival design while he raised the upper floor eight feet to accommodate his studio and installed an expansive skylight-type window for his studio.  The brownstone stoop was replaced with one of brick.

Bellows and his wife, the former Emma Story, had two daughters while in the house—Ann, born in 1912 and Jean in 1915.   The paintings that emerged from the top floor studio drew both praise and protest. 
Bellows captured the energy of the metropolis in his 1911 "New York City"
The New York Times remarked “He painted from life and from imagination, using a great variety of themes.”  His gritty New York City pictures like "The Cliff Dwellers" represented tenement life with no excuses and raised “wide interest,” according to The Times.   He captured the moment when boxer Jack Dempsey was knocked through the ropes by Firpo.  When he exhibited his “Nude Girl With a Shawl” at the National Arts Club Exhibition in 1915, it drew protests as “too realistic.”

The smell of cigar smoke and the noise of the crowd is nearly tangible in Bellows' ground breaking painting.
Nevertheless, he earned recognition and awards year after year.  While still living and working on 19th Street he saw his paintings purchased by the Brooklyn Museum, the Columbus Art Association, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Arts Club, the Detroit Museum, the Cleveland Museum, the Albright, the Phillips Memorial Gallery in Washington among many others.

In 1918 Bellows was selected to join in an exhibition to benefit the Fourth Liberty Loan drive.  The New York-based painters and sculptors donated their work “in order to persuade the public to the utmost of zeal in buying bonds and putting an end to bondage,” said The New York Times on October 6.

Bellows’ way of persuading bond purchase was to show the public the atrocities of war.  The newspaper’s art critic wrote “George Bellows has made use of every agency for the communication of horror in his picture “The Germans Arrive.”  Prussian officers are cutting off the hands of a lad and throttling a woman; other atrocities are indicated in the subsidiary groups.  The treatment is characteristic and familiar to a public acquainted with the artist’s pugilist subjects,.  Long practice in realistic illustration of scenes of physical violence has made possible a convincing report at second hand of what we have all heard.”

Socialite Mrs. Albert M. Miller posed here in 1912.
Like every other artist, Bellows had to pay the bills.  To supplement the sales of his more creative works, he painted the portraits of society women—a stark contrast to so many of his gritty, earthier subjects.

A wreath hangs on the door around 1920.  Cut-out designs of potted trees on the solid shutters are mimicked in the cast planters -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
On Friday January 2, 1925 the 43-year old artist was working in his studio when he suddenly felt ill.   Struck with appendicitis, he was rushed to the Post Graduate Hospital where he was operated on the following day.   Five days later, on January 8, he died in the hospital.

Emma and the two girls, now 10 and 13 years old, stayed on in the 19th Street house.  Bellows’ works, already highly regarded (The Times called him “one of America’s most distinguished painters), soared in value.  His “Emma and Her Children,” formerly appraised at $3,000, was sold to the Boston Museum shortly after his death for $22,000.

When Jean married on December 11, 1949 at the age of 35, Emma was left alone in the house.   In May 1955 the aging widow sold the house to the New York Investors Mutual Group, Inc.  It appeared to be the end of the line for the culturally-historic home.  The New York Times reported that “The site will be incorporated with other holdings for improvement with an apartment building.”

But someone changed his mind.  A year later the house was converted to two apartments—a duplex on the first and second floors, and another in the third and “mezzanine”—George Bellows’ sun-drenched art studio.

Today the house remains unchanged, albeit unfortunately covered in barn red paint.   From its uppermost floors emerged some of America’s modern art masterpieces—a broad swath encompassing sweating athletes to earthy urban landscapes to refined society portraits.

2 comments:

  1. The recent Met show of Bellows' work was very good. That streetscape painting you posted is very intriguing. It's hard to pin down whether this is an actual location or not. It looks vaguely - but not quite - like the City Hall area. Do you have any ideas about it?

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  2. The short building straddling the street could be Grand Central of the NY Public Library..I get the idea it's an amagamation of scenes creating a NYC feel

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