George Bellows was born in Columbus, Ohio on August 19, 1882. He attended Ohio State University where he was encouraged to become a professional baseball player because of his talent, but he lacked the interest. As a student he worked as a commercial illustrator and though he continued to accept magazine assignments throughout his life, Bellows desired enough success as a painter to avoid having to rely on illustration for income. He left the university in 1904 without graduating and moved to New York City to study art. At the New York School of Art he was a student of Robert Henri.
By 1906, Bellows was renting his own studio. He first achieved notice in 1908, when he and other pupils of Henri organized an exhibition of mostly urban studies. While many critics considered these to be crudely painted, others found them welcomely audacious and a step beyond the work of their teacher.
Bellows' urban New York scenes depicted the crudity and chaos of working-class people and neighborhoods, and also satirized the upper classes. From 1907 through 1915, Bellows developed his strong sense of light and visual texture while he executed a series of paintings depicting New York City under snowfall. However, Bellows' series of paintings portraying amateur boxing matches were arguably his signature contribution to art history.
Gaining prestige as a painter brought some changes to his work. He began to additionally receive portrait commissions from those among New York's wealthy elite.
At the same time, the always socially conscious Bellows also associated with a group of radical artists and activists called "the Lyrical Left", who tended towards anarchism in their extreme advocacy of individual rights. He taught at the first Modern School in New York City and served on the editorial board of the socialist journal, The Masses, to which he contributed many drawings. However, he was often at odds with the other contributors because of his belief that artistic freedom should trump any ideological editorial policy.
In addition to painting, Bellows made significant contributions to lithography, helping to expand the use of the medium as a fine art in the U.S. He installed a lithography press in his studio in 1916, and between 1921 and 1924 he collaborated with master printer Bolton Brown on more than a hundred images. Bellows also illustrated numerous books in his later career, including several by H.G. Wells.
Bellows moved from New York in 1919 to teach at the Chicago Art Institute. He died on January 8, 1925 of peritonitis, after failing to tend to a ruptured appendix. He was survived by his wife, Emma, and two daughters, Anne and Jean.