“I’ve always felt that [George] Bellows, of all the great American painters, comes out of a European tradition of artists like Manet or Spanish painters like Goya,” National Gallery director Nicholas Penny told NYTer Carol Vogel yesterday as his museum announced that it had acquired this 1912 Bellows, Men of the Docks. Penny flushed-out the same line for The Guardian’s Mark Brown: “It is a very good new direction for us because many great pictures were painted in the European tradition outside Europe,” Penny said.
In other words, Penny and his curators like Bellows because they think he makes art like a European, whose art they admire, rather than like an American. (Furthermore, Penny must mean that Bellows painted like a mid-19th-century European; in 1912 Picasso made this, Matisse made this, and Bellows painted that.) “[W]e know about Benjamin West, Thomas Eakins, the Ashcan School, Thomas Hart Benton, Stuart Davis and the ever popular Edward Hopper,” Mark Hudson writes in The Telegraph. “Yet the sense remains that it was all one long, dull, provincial blur before the sunburst explosion of Abstract Expressionism.”
This all suggests the National Gallery knows little about art made in America between 1776 and World War II. The greatest American painter before Still, Pollock and their generation wasn’t Bellows, not by a long shot. It’s Marsden Hartley, a nimble modernist who was among the first Americans to understand European developments in abstraction (and who swiftly made it his own), and who, along with with Braque, Picasso and Matisse, was one of the four great 20th-century synthesizers of Paul Cezanne. (There does not appear to be a Hartley in any British national collection.)
The line behind Hartley starts with John Marin, the greatest handler of watercolors since, well, Paul Cezanne. Finally, the first great American artists were the men who pioneered the 19th-century’s new medium, photography, artists such as Muybridge, Gardner, O’Sullivan, Jackson and Weed. One of them, Carleton Watkins, was the greatest American artist of the 19th century, as well as the world’s finest 19th-century photographer. (Reminder: The idea that photography is not art and that photographers were not artists is a 20th-century construct. Nineteenth-century photographers, Watkins especially, considered themselves artists and were described as such by the writers of their time.)
Penny’s justification for spending $25.5 million (plus the soon-to-be ongoing costs of servicing the National Gallery’s new relationship with Randolph College) on a middling painter aside, Bellows was certainly not a Manet or a Goya. From about 1906 until The Armory Show of 1913 seemed to push him into crisis — so for just six or seven years — Bellows was, at best, a very good painter. In what may have been the last exhibition review I wrote here before converting my ‘reviewing time’ into The Modern Art Notes Podcast, I grappled with the several Bellowses on the occasion of a 2012 retrospective organized by the National Gallery of Art. The show was superfluous — no American painter of his generation has been more over-retrospected than Bellows — but when the exhibition traveled to London it served to introduce Britain to Bellows. Evidently Penny saw more in it than I did.