In 1907, the construction of Pennsylvania Station was well underway in the heart of Manhattan. A vast swath of Midtown was razed to make way for a huge Beaux-Arts rail hub that would connect New York to the rest of the United States and cement the city’s place as the most significant metropolis in the country. George Wesley Bellows was in his mid-twenties in 1907 and, having studied under Robert Henri at the New York School of Art, was a member of the contemporary art movement known as the Ashcan School. Along with artists like Henri, John Sloan, George Luks, Williams Glackens, and others, Bellows explored the urban life of New York City in a raw realist style. The construction of Pennsylvania Station, as an exemplar of the continued, complicated ascent of New York, was a source of inspiration for Bellows and other Ashcan painters. In his 1907 painting Pennsylvania Excavation (gifted to the Smith College Museum of Art in 2010 by 1960 Smith graduate Mary Gordon Roberts), Bellows paints the scene with incisive honesty and, in doing so, expresses the urban condition at the turn of the century.
In Bellows' image, the void that will make way for the great Station is all-consuming; its enormity accentuated by the minuteness of two figures and a steam shovel in the foreground. The figures are workmen, laborers whose toil will bring about one of the technological and architectural marvels of the twentieth century. But in the face of the project they are dwarfed by empty space seemingly at the fringe of civilization. In the distance the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan stand, not as glittering idols but as a lifeless wall of gray. Progress is not always pretty. And here, progress comes in the form of a barren canyon buried under snow and soot. The promise of modern life is reduced to a bleak and colorless wasteland.
The composition of the scene is a stone's throw from Bruegel's Harvesters. In both images the land and the work associated with it are visually insurmountable, outscaling the humans tasked to them. In Bellows' New York, Breugel's peasantry is replaced by the proletariat. For Bellows, urban life was not a subject to be idealized, but one to be shared in order to express truth. Realism would elucidate reality, and in doing so share a new verity: the lived experience city dwellers in the United States at the tail end of the Gilded Age. As cities became the center of American culture, they also became flashpoints for the massive inequality that afflicted American society.
Formally, the painting mirrors its Renaissance antecedent while at the same time pushing the boundaries of representational painting. Bellows borrows the atmospherics of Turner and the central chasm becomes a rugged abstraction, an expression of the chaos of the place and time depicted. Paint is dashed on and carved out in a grisaille of destruction and construction. As changes come to the extensive work site, the city is also transformed. The station that would rise from the rubble of a vibrant neighborhood would become a landmark of elegant modernity. Bellows depicts this decisive moment with gritty realness and thereby shares the truth of progress: that it is messy and comes with great difficulty.
Pennsylvania Excavation is a fine example of Bellows' work and an insightful piece from the Ashcan School, a movement that was uniquely New York in its founding and uniquely American in its scope. In paintings like Bellows', he and his contemporaries explored the truth of the American scene in the early part of the twentieth century and the innumerable ways in which average people would shape the national identity. Through images of urban development and redevelopment with zealous actuality, Bellows and his peers created a movement that expressed the experience of a nation increasingly centered around its cities and their growth.
More than one hundred years on from Pennsylvania Excavation, the original Penn Station has long been demolished and replaced. The life of the city and the country has gone on. But in the early part of the twenty first century, as American populations shift back to city centers and metropolitan life, there is still much to be learned from the urban realism of Bellows and the Ashcan School.