How did they do that?

February 11 2014

Image of How did they do that?

Picture: National Gallery

The National Gallery has found £15.6m to buy its 'first US artwork', a painting by George Bellows. The picture also becomes the first Bellows to enter a UK public collection. The money came principally from the acquisition fund established by the late Sir Paul Getty, and other anonymous donors. In other words, no public funding body, such as the HLF, was involved. That's testament to the National Gallery's impressive fundraising operation. More details on the purchase in the NG's press release here

Given that the picture was painted in 1912, and so lies outside the 1900 cut off date that has traditionally been followed by the National Gallery, some have wondered how this affects both the National's and Tate's future acquisition policy. The BBC's arts editor, Will Gompertz, writes, on the BBC website:

Tate and the National Gallery have an agreement that is renewed every decade that sets the parameters of each institution's collection strategy to avoid overlap and competition. The line has hitherto been drawn around 1900, the point at which the National Gallery hands the story of Western art over to Tate Modern.

The acquisition of the Bellows blurs that line as it was produced in the second decade of the 20th Century, which has always been very much Tate territory. It raises the prospect of the two national galleries competing for certain paintings in the future, which either could argue fits within their historical art narrative.

The picture was de-accessioned by the Maier Museum, part of Randolph College in Virginia, in the US. This has created a bit of to-do, because the institution in question, Randolph College, is using the money to fund general operating costs, not for its art collection. The CAA has its say here.

The acquisition is a rare, and pleasingly welcome, case of a UK institution buying a US de-accession. The boot is usually on the other foot...

Update - a reader points out that there are of course many other 'American' paintings in the NG:

A couple of things about the reporting on this: much has been made that this is only the second American work in the NG’s collection, after the Inness landscape.  Which, by the way was cleaned recently and has been displayed on the main floor of the Gallery.  More important, and somewhat overlooked, is the fact that while the Bellows is the second work by an American artist in the collection OF an American subject, there have been, and are, other works BY American artists in the collection.  The Sargent of Lord Ribblesdale still forms part of the collection and Whistlers like this one have also been displayed there relatively recently.  The press releases for the acquisition of the Bellows make something of its relationship to artists like Manet but, of course, both the Whistler and the Sargent are more closely connected so are they now going to form part of the main display?

One further thing: the division of the spoils date-wise between the NG and Tate has never been absolute or logical.  Tate has hung on to one of the loveliest of Degas pastels  - the drawings and sculptures by Degas can’t be transferred – and Tate clearly wasn’t interested in taking the Nationals latest complete work.

Another reader wonders where all these new pictures will go:

The Bellows is a wonderful addition to the National Galleries collection, but makes the pressure on wall space, if the break off period is now 1910, for the NG/Tate divide, critical. I wonder when the National Gallery will bite the bullet, and start to built a brand new extension on the Radisson Blu Hotel it owns to the east in Whitcomb St.

Another reader asks, why did they do that?

Congratulations to the National Gallery for acquiring its first significant American painting.  However, one is left to wonder about the true cost of the £15.6m George Bellows canvas, 'Men of the Docks.'

Last year an important painting ('Richmond Hill') by renowned American artist, Jasper Cropsey, was subject to a temporary export ban by Ed Vaizey to provide a last chance for a British museum or gallery to save it for the nation.  The National Gallery declined to step in to meet the £5m asking price and the painting, in the UK since it was originally painted 150 years ago, was lost overseas.

The importance of the Cropsey painting (an artist not represented anywhere in the national collection) was recognised by the National Gallery itself in 2000 when it was also at risk of going abroad and the then Director, Neil MacGregor, campaigned for it to be saved.   So why the change of mind?

In the past twelve months, export stopped paintings by Domenico Puligo and Niccolo Gerini have also been lost despite their importance and exceptional works by Benjamin West (born in America) and Alonso Coello are currently at risk.  None of these artists are represented in the permanent collection of the National Gallery and all four would cost less than two thirds of the price of the Bellows painting.

Bold acquisitions from overseas are to be encouraged but is it right that this should be at the expense of equally as important works more closely associated with this island's history which continue to leave these shores with depressing regularity?

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