Having achieved initial recognition in the 1930s as a stage actor, admired particularly for his portrayal of Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner, Clifton Webb (1891-1966) was later acclaimed for his starring roles in such movies as Laura and Sitting Pretty of 1948 in which he was the much-loved male nanny Mr. Belvedere. He had initially sought to become an artist, enrolling about 1905 in the New York School of Art, which had been founded by William Merritt Chase, the distinguished master of high-style portraits. There the shy young man, who had been born Webb Parmelee Hollenbeck, met and was befriended by the outgoing George Bellows, then at the beginning of his illustrious career. Bellows was studying at the time with Chase as well as Robert Henri, artists of extremely different temperaments – while Chase was formal Henri was boisterous – and was influenced by both, especially as his teachers encouraged an interest in the Dutch and Spanish Old Masters and such modern masters as Edouard Manet. As Jane Myers writes in “Bellows and Portraiture” in the 1992 retrospective catalogue, “the august associations of art history appealed to Bellows’s lofty sensibilities, and the traditions of portraiture provided him with a way to express his individuality.” He especially admired Rembrandt and Velazquez as well as Thomas Eakins. She continues: “That Henri himself influenced Bellows’s portraiture is evident in the similarities between Henri’s striking portrait of John Sloan [1904, Corcoran Collection at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC] and Bellows’s Robin, Portrait of Clifton Webb. Drawing from the romanticism of seventeenth-century Spanish portraiture, Henri set Sloan’s dramatically lit visage against a shadowed backdrop and relegated his figure to secondary importance, barely allowing it to emerge from the shadows. Quick to learn Henri’s method, Bellows applied the informality of this portrait type to his own depiction of a teen-aged Clifton Webb, a fellow student at the New York School of Art, where the painting was probably made. Bellows used a three-quarter-length view seen in near profile, and the disposition of light and dark passages corresponds to Henri’s portrait. But, more importantly, he adopted Henri’s view that portraiture was a means to express the artist’s unique perception of some inherent quality of the sitter – what Henri referred to as the ‘true subject’ – rather than a reworking of staid artistic formulas.” At the time, Bellows was already recognized as the artistic genius of the school, and he went out of his way to support his withdrawn friend (soon to abandon art for theater and develop an uninhibited personality) whom he called Robin Red Nose for his “expectant, early morning, worm-hunting look”. Other notable related Bellows paintings of the period include Little Girl in White (National Gallery, Washington), Early Standing Nude – Miss Bentham (Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, UK), Frankie the Organ Boy (Nelson-Atkins, Kansas City), Portrait of My Father (Columbus Museum, Ohio), and Paddy Flannigan (Wolf Collection).
Oil on canvas, 44 1/4 x 30 in.
Signed & inscribed (u.l.): Robin/ Geo Bellows
Estate of the Artist
H.V.Allison & Co, New York
Darryl Zanuck and 20th Century Fox Film Studios, Los Angeles, 1950
Clifton Webb, Los Angeles, gift from above, 1951
Mr and Mrs Richard D. Zanuck, c.1981
Estate of Richard D. Zanuck
Exhibitions and Literature
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., George Bellows: a Retrospective Exhibition, 1957, No 1, catalogue by Henry McBride, illustrated No 1
National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C., Portraits by George Bellows,
Catalogue by Margaret Christman and Marvin Sadik, illustrated in color
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Whitney Museum of American Art, Columbus (Ohio) Museum of Art, The Paintings of George Bellows, 1992-3, catalogue by Michael Quick, Jane Myers, Marianne Doezema, Franklin Kelly and John Wilmerding, illustrated in color (p.176)
Charles H. Morgan, George Bellows, Painter of America, New York 1965, illustrated (p. 305), p. 47
Clifton Webb with David L. Smith, Sitting Pretty, the Life and Times of Clifton Webb, Jackson, Mississippi 2011, illustrated (p.7)