National Gallery acquires first US artwork

Men of the Docks, 1912, by George Bellows Men of the Docks is the final in a series of Bellows' paintings depicting workers gathered on Brooklyn's waterfront

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The National Gallery has made its first ever acquisition of a painting by an American artist.

George Bellows' 1912 painting, Men of the Docks, depicts a group of workers standing by the waterfront in Brooklyn.

The museum paid £15.6m ($25.5m) for the artwork, which was previously owned by Randolph College in Virginia.

It marks a major shift in the gallery's collecting policy, previously limited to paintings by European artists from the Renaissance to around 1900.

Bellows, who died at the age of 42 from appendicitis, documented the hardship of working life as New York emerged into the 20th Century.

"I'm a great fan of American painting, but great examples are hard to come by," said Dr Nicholas Penny, director of the National Gallery.

Tate and the National Gallery have an agreement that is renewed every decade that sets the parameters of each institution's collection strategy to avoid overlap and competition. The line has hitherto been drawn around 1900, the point at which the National Gallery hands the story of Western art over to Tate Modern.

The acquisition of the Bellows blurs that line as it was produced in the second decade of the 20th Century, which has always been very much Tate territory. It raises the prospect of the two national galleries competing for certain paintings in the future, which either could argue fits within their historical art narrative.

Edward Hopper, for example, was the subject of one of Tate Modern's most successful exhibitions, and I'd imagine Tate would jump at the chance of acquiring one of his famous paintings. But Hopper was also linked to the American Ashcan Group, as was Bellows, and would therefore also make a logical addition to the National Gallery's collection under its new policy.

Should such a situation arise the likely outcome is a private negotiation between the two institutions as to which would bid on order to avoid driving the price up at the taxpayer's expense. Or, in the days of collaborative purchases, they could join forces and share the work.

"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."

The National Gallery currently owns paintings by American-born European artists such as Copley and Whistler, and one minor American work, The Delaware Water Gap by George Inness, which is rarely on display.

Realist painter Bellows was the subject of a 2011 exhibition at the National and a retrospective at the Royal Academy last year.

Men of the Docks, the final in a series depicting workers gathered on an icy day on the New York waterfront, will hang alongside Impressionists like Monet and Pissarro.

Christopher Riopelle, the gallery's curator of post-1800 paintings, called Bellows "the American master" whose work evoked "the raw and unbeautiful energy of the urban experience."

The acquisition marks the start of a Transatlantic academic partnership between Randolph College and the London-based gallery.

"We feel proud that an international audience will now become more aware of Randolph and our long stewardship of Men of the Docks," said college president Bradley W Bateman.

The Bellows painting was bought principally with money from a fund established by John Paul Getty, established before his death in 2003, and is the first publicly-owned Bellows in the UK.

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