George Bellows

(1882-1925)

In 1914, Bellows was commissioned by the Harvard Club of New York to paint a portrait of Judge Peter Butler Olney (1843-1922). Bellows was chosen at the suggestion of club member and attorney Charles Culp Burlingham. Olney received his undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard and served as the club’s president from January 1911 to May 1913. The club commonly commissioned likenesses of recent past presidents to adorn its walls at 27 West 44th Street. Born in Oxford, Massachusetts, Olney served as district attorney for New York County, fought Boss Tweed, and was a United States referee in bankruptcy cases for the Southern District of New York. In addition to the Harvard Club, he was a member of the Century Club, the University Club, the Rockaway Hunting Club, the New England Society, and the Huguenot Society of America.

Bellows’' full-length portrait of Olney was placed in the Harvard Club in the summer of 1914, but the sitter rejected the work. The minutes of the Board of Managers reports that on November 12 the painting “had been withdrawn from the Harvard Club and that Mr. Bellows intended to paint a new portrait” (Board of Managers Minutes, Harvard Club of New York). The reason for the portrait’s removal is not clear, but Olney apparently found the painting’s aquamarine background too modern.

Bellows’' color choice reflects his exposure to the paintings of Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse and the Fauves at the Armory Show of 1913. After viewing the exhibition he became increasingly daring with color, and experimented with pure hues in vibrant combinations. Bellows admitted that what he adopted above all from the "modernist movement" was "fresh, spontaneous, pure color".”