George Bellows, 'Men of the Docks', 1912
Acquired in 2014, Men of the Docks marked a major moment in the Gallery’s history. Not only was it the first painting by acclaimed American artist George Bellows to enter a UK public collection, it was also the Gallery’s first acquisition of a painting by an artist working outside of Western Europe.
Bellows depicts a group of men huddled together on a Brooklyn dockyard on a bleak and icy winter’s day. Behind them looms a large steam liner and the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan can be seen hazy in the distance.
The men appear to be day labourers waiting for work. They all turn towards the left, as if someone has approached with news of whether or not there is any work.
Curator Christopher Riopelle has described how Bellows captures the ‘raw and unbeautiful energy of the urban experience in what was at the time one of the world’s fastest-growing cities’ by using thick slabs of pigment to evoke the clothing and forms of the workers and dray horses, but carefully distinguishing their mute expressions. Their forms stand in contrast to the blunt, rigid shapes of the ocean liner and surrounding buildings.
The composition conveys a sense of how, in the early 20th century, dockworkers were at once on the periphery of society and yet at the heart of the city’s development. The men stand between the warehouse on the left, and steam liner on the right – whilst beyond them, out of reach across frozen waters, the wealth and opportunity of the city beckons.
It is an outstanding example of the socially engaged, modern realism that was central to American art in the early 20th century, and for which Bellows became known.