An American Painting Joins the National Gallery in London

George Bellows (1882-1925)
Men on the Docks, 1912
Oil on canvas - 114.3 x 161.3 cm
Londres, National Gallery
Photo : The National Gallery

10/2/14 - Acquisition - London, National Gallery - Can a museum sell its collections ? In the United States the answer is yes and, although it is supposed to reinvest the earnings in the acquisition of other works, the practice would still appear to contradict the primary mission of an institution : conservation.
In 2007, Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia, which since 1907 has brought together a collection of permanent art works, essentially American, at the Maier Museum of Art, decided to sell four canvases : George Bellows (1882-1925), Men on the Docks ; Edward Hicks (1780-1849), A Pacific Kingdom ; Ernest Hennings (1886-1956), Through the Arroyo and the Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991), Troubadour. At the time, many had expressed their sadness at such an initiative - former alumni and museum directors, notably the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and the Association of College and University Museums -, some refusing to have the paintings sold and others demanding that the revenues go to the museum and not the university. In a letter addressed to Randolph College in 2011, the AAMD pointed out that the pieces in a public collection cannot be replaced and that the institutions cannot use them as a means to resolve their financial problems. This reflects a misunderstanding of the role of art in education and threatens to undermine the public’s trust in non-profit organizations (if that is still their status). Why would a collector donate a canvas to a museum who is willing to part from it, even sell it ?
Despite the protests, the Rufino Tamayo painting went on the block at Christie’s New York on 28 May 2008 and sold for $7.2 million. Today, Men on the Docks by George Bellows is in turn leaving Randolph College. Fortunately, the painting will remain accessible to the public as it has been acquired by the National Gallery in London for $25.5 million. The purchase was made possible by the Sir Paul Getty fund as well as anonymous contributions.
This is the first important American painting to join the collections at this London museum which is specialized in European art, thus marking a turning point in its acquisitions policy. The trend was initiated in 2009 in a collaboration with the Terra Foundation for American Art, then an exhibition highlighting George Bellows in 2011 [1]. Somewhere between a genre scene and a cityscape, this painting is one in a series of ports showing workers on the docks of New York in the winter cold. The composition is closed on the right by the imposing silhouette of an ocean liner and in the background by the Manhattan skyscrapers . The outlook for these dockers is a bleak one. Bellows trained under Robert Henri (1865-1929) and was part of the Ashcan School whose members represent the everyday lives of the poor, much like here. The canvas was presented at an exhibition in 1920 at Randolph College which acquired it directly from the artist at the time.

Version française

Bénédicte Bonnet Saint-Georges, lundi 10 février 2014


[1] London, National Gallery, "George Bellows, An American Experience : George Bellows and the Ashcan Painters", 3 March to 30 May 2011.

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