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National Gallery London acquires first American painting

— February 2014

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George Bellows, Men of the Docks, 1912. Bought with a grant from the American Friends of the National Gallery, made possible by Sir Paul Getty’s fund, & by private appeal, 2014 © The National Gallery, London

The National Gallery, London has acquired its first major American painting – the 1912 work Men of the Docks by George Bellows (1882–1925). This is the first painting by this important American artist  to enter a UK public collection.

It was one of the pictures shown last year at London’s Royal Academy exhibition of the artist’s work. For a review of that George Bellows exhibition see Cassone, June 2013.

The painting has been purchased from Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia, as part of a new, transatlantic academic partnership, the first of its kind between an American college and a UK gallery.

The National Gallery has used some of the fund established by the late Sir Paul Getty and has also received exceptional support from anonymous sources in order to buy the painting for $25.5 million.

The acquisition of Men of the Docks, a work made in the Western painting tradition at a vital moment of experiment and innovation in the early years of the 20th century, introduces a previously overlooked dimension to the National Gallery’s collection. It also marks a new direction in its acquisition policy – seeking to represent paintings in the Western European tradition, rather than solely those made by artists working in Western Europe.

National Gallery Director, Dr Nicholas Penny, said:

Bellows has almost always been seen in the context of American painting, but the way he painted owed much to Manet, and his depiction of the violence and victims of New York derived from Goya and earlier Spanish art. He will seem as modern and original as ever in the National Gallery, but our visitors – many of them from North America – will understand him in a different way. We are thrilled to have been able to purchase this painting.

The National Gallery’s commitment to exploring the American painting tradition began in 2009 with the launch of its collaboration with the Terra Foundation for American Art. This partnership involves historical masterworks from the USA being brought to London audiences through a series of focused exhibitions. Bellows was the subject of the first of these shows (‘An American Experiment: George Bellows and the Ashcan Painters’, 3 March – 30 May 2011). Highly successful, it was seen by 98,000 visitors.

Men of the Docks is the final and largest in a series of Bellows paintings of workers gathered on a frigid winter day on the New York waterfront. Heroically scaled and vigorously painted, part genre painting and part cityscape; it is an outstanding example of the socially engaged, modern realism that was central to American art in the early 20th century.

Christopher Riopelle, National Gallery curator of Post-1800 paintings, says:

The wilful awkwardness and brutality with which he paints the grey flank of the ocean liner, docked on the Brooklyn waterfront, the thick slabs of pigment that evoke forms and clothing of the workers and the dray horses, and the careful distinguishing of the worker’s various mute expressions evoke something of the raw and unbeautiful energy of the urban experience in what was at the time one of the world’s fastest-growing cities. The looming Manhattan skyline opposite, however, is executed in a monochromatic mode. It is this control over the various levels of representation on a single canvas at which Bellows was the American master.

The acquisition marks an historic partnership between the National Gallery and Randolph College, one that will advance the College’s academic programme. Bradley W. Bateman, President of Randolph College, says:

With this sale to the National Gallery, which concludes a process begun in 2007, we confirm the steadily increasing institutional vigour of Randolph College and look forward to continuing the conversations we have begun with the National Gallery. We feel proud that an international audience will now become more aware of Randolph and our long stewardship of Men of the Docks, as this painting takes its place among the masterpieces in the National Gallery.

Men of the Docks is now on display in Room 43 of the National Gallery alongside major Impressionist works including snow scenes and urban vistas by Monet and Pissarro, thus linking Bellows with his closest European avant-garde antecedents.

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