Men of the Docks by George Bellows

I really enjoyed seeing the George Bellows exhibition at the Royal Academy last year. I’ve always enjoyed but never quite been driven by Edward Hopper, Bellow’s more famous contemporary American artist. But discovering Bellows has been fantastic, it’s been a while since I met an artist that made me want to draw and  paint all over again. Known for his boxers, city crowds and dramatic lithographs, I like his ability to combine crisp shapes with movement, realism of detail with expressive brushwork, and a sense of wonder at the everyday existence of workers and city dwellers. His paintings and drawings are contemporary to his time, but have an eternal quality to their style and characters.

I had missed the news articles covering the National Gallery’s acquisition of Men of the Docks by Bellows, so when I stumbled across it by chance I was bowled over. It dominates room 43, and is a refreshing bit of gritty realism next to Monet and the other pretty late Impressionist works around it. What should have been quite a simple set of shapes to draw took me ages, as once I got into the rhythm I found the shapes of the men were soft and subtle, like their worn clothes. The horses are painted with the same fluid but heavy strokes of the men, uniting their tired bodies as they linger in the early morning, waiting to work. Only afterwards did I realise that I had missed off sketching the man to the left urinating -there can’t be many of them in the National Gallery! The simple but careful colour palette of the painting is exquisite: the way the blue of the mens’ clothes converses with the water and ship’s funnel, and orange-pink of their faces links with the band of the ship, and smoke-stained brick of the city beyond. Apparently the picture cost ¬£16 million. A fair amount, but well-spent to give the first American, and what a painting and Ambassador for the country’s art and history, a home in the National Gallery. A new favourite for me.