Acquisitions Museums United Kingdom

National Gallery’s first American painting arrives in London with baggage

Painting of Brooklyn waterfront by George Bellows is a controversial deaccession by a US college

George Bellows’s Men of the Docks, 1912

The National Gallery, London, has purchased George Bellows’s Men of the Docks, 1912, unveiling its new acquisition today, 7 February. Acquiring the work showing stevedores and a ship docked in Brooklyn is a coup—it is the first major American painting to enter the nation’s collection.

But the news may be bitter sweet for those who believe that the painting should never have left the Maier Museum of Art in Lynchburg, Virginia, which is part of Randolph College. It had been purchased in 1920 and hung in the museum until 2007, when the college's trustees decided to sell it along with three other paintings to boost the institution's endowment. A group including former students fought to save the Bellows and the other works from being deacessioned, and the museum’s director, Karol Lawson, resigned in protest at the decision.

Bradley W. Bateman, the president of Randolph College, is delighted that the Bellows has gone to a public collection with such an international audience. A new partnership between the college and the National Gallery will see curators and its director, Nicholas Penny, visiting to deliver lectures and its students will travel to London for internships. He also says that there is an “agreement in principal” that the painting could return on temporary loan to the US college. Founded for women-only in 1891, it turned co-ed in 2006.

A spokeswoman for the National Gallery declined to comment on the controversy surrounding the deaccessioning of Bellows’s painting by the college, saying: “Randolph College is first and foremost a college, and this sale helps to ensure the institution’s long-term sustainability. The National Gallery is delighted to be working with them on this and acquiring this picture.”

In a statement, the director of the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny, said that in its new home “visitors—many of them from North America—will understand [Bellows] in a different way” citing the artist’s debt to Manet and Goya. The work now hangs alongside paintings by Monet and Pissarro.

The National Gallery purchased the work for $25.5m with a grant from its American Friends made possible by the Sir Paul Getty Fund and a private appeal. The New York-based art dealer and Old Master specialist Rachel Kaminsky acted as a special adviser to the National Gallery in its search for American paintings worthy to hang alongside its European masterpieces.

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12 Feb 14
23:53 CET


This painting was the topic of the National Gallery lunchtime lecture on 10 Feb. The room was packed. The painting could not be presented in a better context. It ennobles Bellows' creation, and his creation ennobles the tradition upon which it draws. I normally tend to sympathise with the opposition when it comes to deaccessioning, but this case appears to be a win-win situation.

8 Feb 14
17:21 CET


Personally, I am glad that this significant painting is now at The National Gallery. When I organized an exhibition of Bellows's winter paintings in 1998, it was unavailable, but it is included in the checklist of the winter paintings I compiled, which can be seen in "Love of Winter" (the name of the exhibition and accompanying catalogue) published by the Norton Museum of Art. I believe it is still available at the Norton as well as on Amazon. As a Brit living and working in America, I have to say that George Bellows strikes a significant chord, though he is underrated even in America. John Wilmerding, writing in the above-mentioned publication, made the point that the quality of paint application in Bellows's New York/New Jersey paintings of 1907-1915, was not to be seen again until the New York School of the late 1940s. In the first quarter of the C20th, it was Bellows (not Hopper or O'Keeffe) who was at the forefront of American painting. Congratulations to the National Gallery!

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