Domestic Violence and Alcoholism – George Bellows' realistic 1924 Lithograph

The drunk man is a lithograph by George Bellows made in 1923/24. The artist skilfully and masterfully depicts and captures that perfect moment in time depicting domestic violence and the evils of alcohol in the society through this lithograph. On a personal note I feel this lithograph should rather be named ‘The Sadistic Barbarous Wife Beater.’

There are five characters in this lithograph and each one of them presents us with a different set of sentiments, fears, motivations, anxieties and uncertainties; all of them victim to a common predicament. The background is scarce and is littered with as few things as possible but don’t let that fool you. It is the inanimate things in the background that sets the chronology of events and takes us to a very specific moment in time. Broken plates and an overturned chair in the foreground set the tone of the lithograph and indicate that the fight had crossed the verbal barrier long back and now the drunk man after taking out his fury on inanimate objects has zeroed in on the people around him. While at the same time the flowing bed sheet in the left corner with a checkered flag pattern tells us that the chronology of the events is reaching a grand finale.

Like an elephant in musth, hysterical and enraged the antagonist, the drunk man, is seen front and centre, his face sporting a strong emotion of uncorrupted apathy. The soul that once inhabited that body is long gone, leaving behind a living corpse with glassy inebriated sunken eyes that have no sign of humanity or tenderness in them. With his bulky arm raised above his head and his rough and robust workers’ hands balled into fists, he stands there in stupor ready to strike a woman, most probably his wife.

With an expression of horror, mouth agape, back bent backwards, leaning onto him, she holds onto his brawny forearms and looks into his listless and hollow eyes searching for her husband. She is desperately trying to avoid the beating she is about to get.

The younger girl most probably the wife’s sister or an older first child, using her body weight, holds on to the man’s hands with all her might trying in vain to stop him. And it also seems she is sobbing uncontrollably and asking him to stop in a shrieky tone. She is begging for mercy, she is asking for pity and it seems tonight she is going to get none of it.

We see the older child holding on to his brother trying to shield him, take him away from all this inhumanity. Exposed to such violence the children scramble and dig into a corner as if that will help them escape this reality, as if they will be able to leave this room of horrors and go to a safe place. But the way the room is drawn by George Bellows it is clear that this place of terror has no protective boundaries or doorways, it is traumatically unending and fuzzy. The eyes of the two children are wide open, pupils fully dilated, ears fully open to the sounds, sights and the brutality of the act happening a few feet in front of them.


Domestic Violence

The saddest thing is that this scene made in 1924 is still relevant today. Today, for all the technological and human rights gains, for all the spiritual understanding and gains, for all the social media and connectivity gains that humanity has made in the last hundred years, domestic violence, physical, psychological and sexual is still perpetrated in the year 2019 and in some countries it continues to rise.

I ask,

Is this what humanity is capable of?

Is this the best that we can do?

Will this ever stop?


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