Wednesday 12 February 2014

The National Gallery's shiny new Bellows painting

I was reading an article on the Art Newspaper website regarding the new Bellows painting acquired by the National Gallery. The purchase is part of a concerted effort by the gallery to build up a collection of American Art from the early 20th Century representing a departure from their previous collecting patterns. Bellows was an American artist whose popularity in the UK was augmented by the Royal Academies retrospective of his work 'George Bellows (1882-1925): Modern American Life'. The exhibition was supported by the TERRA Foundation which seeks to actively promote the acquisition of art from this period and which is now heavily involved with the National Gallery.

There has been considerable backlash in America regarding Randolf College's decision to sell Bellow's Men of the Docks. However I can't help but have limited sympathy with their plight. As was demonstrated in this weeks 'fake or fortune' one third of Gainsborough's work including his most famous painting 'The Blue Boy' are owned by American galleries or private collectors. I do not feel that this has damaged the reputation of the artist in Britain or weakened our cultural heritage. On the contrary it has facilitated more research on the artist and an enthusiasm for visiting the country that his paintings glorify.

Furthermore, the sale has brokered a partnership between the two institutions which appears to have a largely one sided benefit. The association will create visits to Randolf College by curators and specialists from the National Gallery who will share their knowledge and expertise. It will also facilitate internships at the National Gallery given to their students. As I have experienced first hand significant internships are like gold dust and are increasingly few and far between and it doesn't get much more prestigious then experience working at the National Gallery.

With regards to the painting itself it is an interesting work showing the dock side on a freezing day in New York. Bellows shows a sensitivity for the plight of the working class men clustered together on the shore. They are huddled over with hands thrust deep into the pockets of heavy overcoats.

The men await the goods being unloaded from the ship that towers over them ready to transport these to the bustling city on the horizon. It seems likely that the workers are searching for ad hoc work hoping that some of the wealth and opportunity represented by the boat might fall their way. This impression is given by the suspicious and competitive seeming glances the workers are giving each other and the lack of communication or comradery between them.

Although the city is partially obscured by the pollution of the docks it is clear that it is a central part of the story that Bellows is telling us. There is something so recognisably New Yorkish about it that you would never mistake it for any other skyline and you can see when you compare it with the photo below taken in 1912, the same year Bellows painted 'Men of the Docks', how carefully Bellows has rendered it. As well as the inclusion of the skyscrapers which are so idiomatic of New York we can see how in order to identify the location he has painted with just a few brush strokes an indication of the distinctive rounded building top that can be seen on the right hand side of the old photo. Having never been to America and really having very little knowledge of New York I do not know the name of this building but to the contemporary New Yorker it would have been immediately recognisable. Even I, a New York novice can identify the outline of the Brooklyn Bridge just visible behind the great ship.

The painting is typical of the work of artist of the early 20th century who were drawn to representations of the, at times harsh, realities of modern life.

The painting is certainly a beautiful one and is on display in room 43 at the National Gallery.

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