George Wesley Bellows, “Return of the Useless,” 1918; oil on canvas, 59 x 66 in.; collection of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
George Wesley Bellows, “Return of the Useless,” 1918; oil on canvas, 59 x 66 in.; collection of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
George Wesley Bellows’ “Return of the Useless” is the final painting in what has come to be described as the artist’s War Series of 1918, a group of drawings, prints and, finally, painted reprisels of these works on paper. Bellows’ powerful, prophetic, doppelgänger of a painting, while less violent and overtly propagandistic than most of the works in the War Series, presents a haunted and haunting image of brutalized civilians returning from their forced labor in boxcars, a horrific vision now forever associated with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. 

The War Series derives from two published sources describing atrocities committed by German troops against Belgian civilians during World War I. The first of these was the Bryce Report, penned in 1915 by Lord James Bryce, former British ambassador to the United States. Published in abbreviated form in The New York Times, this report presented eyewitness accounts of the chaotic early days of the German invasion. Bellows’ second inspiration was a series of articles by Brand Whitlock, former American ambassador to Belgium, published in the socially progressive journal Everybody’s Magazine in 1918. An Ohio native like Bellows, Whitlock was a well-known sportswriter with whom the artist would have been familiar from his own youthful athletic enterprises. “Return of the Useless” first appeared in print as an illustration for one of Whitlock’s articles on the violence in war-torn Belgium.  

Bellows initially opposed the United States’ involvement in World War I. The artist’s political views were socialist leaning, as evidenced by his longtime involvement as editor and contributing artist for the radical magazine The Masses. The publication was adamantly antiwar, a sentiment graphically expressed in Bellows’ strident illustrations protesting what he saw as pro-British and French government policies. As the war progressed, however, the public became increasingly outraged over civilian casualties such as the 1915 sinking by German U-boats of the ocean liner the Lusitania, which resulted in the loss of over 1,100 private citizens, including over 100 Americans. By 1917 Bellows, like most Americans, supported his country’s entry into World War I, volunteering for military service and adding his own voice against atrocities suffered by civilians, if not the conflict itself. 

In some ways, Bellows’ propagandistic war prints are more successful than their painted counterparts. His boldly graphic, black-and-white lithographs powerfully convey the metaphoric struggle between light and darkness that his subjects describe. Moreover, the medium of printmaking allowed Bellows opportunities for mass dissemination of his images in magazines and newspapers. On the other hand, Bellows’ paintings benefit from a nearly life-size scale that places the viewer within a few feet of the action, and from the addition of color. By applying a wash of red pigment over the entire boxcar in “Return of the Useless,” Bellows suggested the blood-soaked history of its returning human cargo. 

The woman in the center of the composition, who descends from the railcar on stacked crates, draws the viewer’s eye toward the dark interior behind her and the human suffering contained therein, while her outstretched arms gesture to the broken and breaking bodies to her either side. Gestures are emphatic, and the action tightly compressed into a shallow space with intense lighting that evokes theatrical productions and stagecraft. Indeed, despite — or perhaps because of — the painting’s horrific content, it is characterized by a heightened sense of unreality. Heartbreakingly, the stage where Bellows set his story was neither fiction nor the final act.