Recent visitors to the Museum will have noticed a new addition to the paintings in the American galleries. Dock Builders by George Bellows is the latest promised gift of Ann and Jim Goodnight. Bellows (1882–1925) was one of the most influential and beloved American artists of the early 20th century. He dropped out of college to play semiprofessional baseball before pursuing a career as a painter in New York. There Bellows studied under Robert Henri and through him fell in with a group of young urban artists. The “ashcan school” advocated painting contemporary American society in all its gritty reality. Though more famous today for his boxing pictures, Bellows painted a wide variety of subjects, capturing the bustle of life around him.
Painted in 1916 during a summer in Camden, Maine, Dock Builders is one of a series of pictures depicting the hard laboring lives of Down East people. It gives a noble dimension to men and horses struggling to move logs into position. Bold, slashing brushstrokes give a sense of movement to this otherwise carefully ordered composition. Bellows’s painterly gusto spills out along the rocks at the bottom as his thick, churning splashes of color encrust the sunlit shoreline. There is a playfulness in Bellows’s handling of the brush. Perhaps the relaxed atmosphere of coastal Maine and the joy of working outside encouraged him to paint more freely. In a letter to Henri, he wrote, “I have done a number of pictures this summer which have not arrived in my mind from direct impressions but are creations of fancy arising out of my knowledge and experience of the facts employed.” Whether it was the sea air or a desire to try new things, it is exciting to see an artist enjoying himself in this “creation of fancy.”
For all the freedom of Dock Builders, Bellows was also experimenting with a systematic approach to composition. The smoothly contoured figures are carefully arranged in an underlying structure of intersecting diagonals. Also, along with several other members of the ashcan school, Bellows was intrigued by the color theories of Hardesty Maratta. Maratta devised a system that assigned each color to a corresponding musical note. He then directed artists to combine colors at prescribed intervals, using “chords” to achieve a harmonious effect. We do not know if Bellows used a color keyboard [see image below] when he was painting in Camden, though it seems likely that he had the balanced triads of the Maratta system in mind.
Combining freedom and restraint, Dock Builders adds something new to the Museum’s galleries. Celebrating men at work, the vibrant colors and innovative technique showcased in this landscape represent a pivotal moment in the history of American art.
Laura Fravel, Curatorial Intern
Hardesty G. Maratta’s color keyboard. From The Maratta Scales of Artists’ Oil Pigments, 1916. John Weichsel Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Image: George Wesley Bellows, Dock Builders, 1916, oil on canvas, Promised gift of Dr. and Mrs. James H. Goodnight