Major Bellows canvas, “Men of the Docks” sells for $25 million plus to the National Gallery, London. The Randolph Macon Women's College of Lynchburg, Virginia had been threatening to sell the painting for five years, since 2008 but litigation put that on hold, until now. The last major museum show of George Bellows artwork went from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Royal Academy in London, so that may have been overseas first look at an American tour de force whose life on this planet was brought to an early end with an acute case of appendicitis as his wife Emma, a devout Christian scientist, chose to treat with prayer instead of an appendectomy in January 1925.
When describing the artist George Bellows, recall this American was born in 1882 in Columbus, Ohio to an old Yankee family that traced its roots back to Bellows Falls, Vermont, a hamlet on the Connecticut River. Bellows attended Ohio State University where he was a star shortstop on the varsity baseball team. He cut his university studies short to move to New York City in 1904 to study art at the Chase School of art under Robert Henri. The school was soon renamed the New York School of Art and today is better known as Parsons School of Design. As an art student his class mates included Rockwell Kent (1882-1971) and Edward Hopper (1882-1967. Both giants in later years but early on in that Ashcan era it was the physically gifted George Bellows whose star burned brightest. Indeed when the maverick group of "The Eight" walked away from the restrictive confines of the National Academy of Design in disgust over elderly juries refusing to hang their avante guard work, it was suggested Bellows naturally join them, but John Sloan envious of the easy success enjoyed by the prodigy blackballed the best Ashcan painter from joining what would become the definitive Ashcan show. For those unfamiliar with the term Ashcan in NYC circa 1908 was the description used to describe one who painted the masses of the lower east side, immigrants, their tenements and life on the waterfront. Not so genteel as the dwellers of the Avenues along Central Park, but teeming with life and exuberance. Bellows was influenced by Henri and Sloan who employed an Edouard Manet type of proto-impressionist brushwork, yet with the paint applied by Bellows athletic hand, it bordered on John Singer Sargent type bravura flair.
The one great intellectual challenge Bellows faced in his career was the arrival of cubism and abstraction when it landed in New York City in the form of the 1913 Armory Show, held at the facility on Lexington Avenue between 25th and 26th streets. The show introduced modern masters like Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cezanne and Marcel Duchamps to a highly sceptical American public. NYC was not so worldly in 1914, and its awkward reception to these otherwise country bumpkins caused the natives to criticise what they could not understand. Particularly ripe for ridicule was the Duchamps cubist canvas, "Nude Descending a Staircase" otherwise referred to as an "Explosion in a shingle factory." That now belongs to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Pennsylvania.
The show moved on, the laughter stilled for a moment, but Bellows noticed one thing about cubism even he had to admit, it implied, no, more than that, it conveyed motion. That ideal inspired him to have an American response. It was called "Dynamic Symmetry" and it used a series of diagonal lines to build up the composition into something monumental. Men of the Docks was done in 1912 a year before the Armory show caused Bellows to codify his thoughts into a compositional formula, but here we see the masses of the ship in the background in a fulcrum like relationship to the hardy longshoremen up close in front. However massive the ships may be, it was those longshoremen who made it possible for the ships to work.
Over the course of the next decade Bellows would prosper and despite running with a crowd that advocated socialism his thriving career bought his family a brownstone home in NYC at 146 East 19th Street and a country home a hundred miles north up the Hudson River in Woodstock NY where he would work for half the year. As the Art Deco age beckoned his brushwork grew tighter and the figure outlines harder, but where this would have wound up we shall never know because he died a few months before his 43rd birthday. A Memorial Exhibition of his work was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1925. More recent exhibitions of his work were at the Whitney Museum and Among Carter Museums in 1992 and last year (2013) there was his first show at the Met since 1925 which then traveled on to London, where his work clearly made an impact. Some may wonder about the price, yes the large canvases have sold for upwards of $27 million which is what Microsoft founder Bill Gates paid for a Polo painting at a Sothebys auction in December 1999. That painting had been covered over as a portrait before a conservator noticed under the dull portrait was a long lost Polo master piece dating to about 1910 when Bellows ventured down to Lakewood NJ in an atypical effort to paint the smart set attending a Polo match. So yes, $25 million for a great Bellows is fair market value, and no his colors are not brown, they are raw and unmixed, thus this strong sale conforms to the current dominance of 20th century, bright colors as an aesthetic steering point of what people really want these days.
While much of this article is based on this writers experience attending sales, museum shows and reading exhibition catalogues, thanks goes to Mr. Glenn Peck who published the catalogue raisonne of the artist in cooperation with the artists family after he took over H.V. Allison Galleries. Allison had a long-standing relationship with the Bellows family dating back to the 1940's.