LONDON – Britain’s National Gallery on Friday unveiled its first major American painting, a work by George Bellows.
Founded nearly 200 years ago, the gallery’s lofty halls are hung with some of the best known treasures of western European paintings from the 13th to the 19th centuries, spanning the early Italian Renaissance to the French Impressionists.
The museum purchased Bellows’ “Men of the Docks,” painted in 1912, for $25.5 million from Randolph College in Lynchburg, Va. It takes its place among iconic works by Giotto, Bellini, Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens and Van Gogh.
Bellows’ work, which will hang alongside snow scenes and urban landscapes by Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro, depicts day laborers waiting for work at the Brooklyn docks on a grey winter’s day. They are shown against a background of a massive ocean liner, with the Manhattan cityscape looming through mist and smoke.
Bellows’ vivid paintings of boxing ring scenes and a series depicting the building of New York’s Pennsylvania Station have already been successfully shown at major London galleries.
While the National Gallery’s buyers appreciate Bellows as an American painter, they also see influences in his work from European artists.
“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,” said National Gallery Director Nicholas Penny, announcing the gallery’s ground- breaking acquisition.
Christopher Riopelle, the museum’s curator of post-1800 paintings, called Bellows “an American master,” praising his depiction of the “willful awkwardness and brutality” of men and horses grouped in the raw cold of a Brooklyn waterfront.
“The workers’ 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,” Riopelle said.
The National Gallery does own one other American work, painted around 1857 by George Inness, but it is rarely displayed. Bellows’ work will be the first American painting to hang in the museum’s permanent collection.
Stobart is a news assistant in The Times' London bureau.