Arts & Culture

Amon Carter Museum calls new acquisition one of its most significant

American painter George Bellows’ The Fisherman, 1917, oil on canvas
American painter George Bellows’ The Fisherman, 1917, oil on canvas

The Amon Carter Museum of American Art is celebrating the holiday season with the purchase of a work by painter George Bellows that museum officials call “one of the most significant acquisitions of the past decade.”

The Fisherman, a 1917 oil painting by Bellows, will be on view by Tuesday afternoon, when it becomes part of the museum’s permanent collection. The Carter already owns 230 lithographs by Bellows, but this work is its first painting by the artist.

“It’s been one of the objectives of the museum for probably the past 20 or 30 years to acquire a painting by George Bellows because he’s considered to be in the canon of great American artists,” says Shirley Reece-Hughes, curator of paintings and sculpture at the Amon Carter.

“He really fills a lacuna in our collection because his works represent a bridge between realism and modernism.”

Bellows, who was born in 1882 and died in 1925, was an important artist of the early 20th century who is often described as an American realist.

A student of famous artist and mentor Robert Henri, Bellows was also part of what was known as the Ashcan School of American art — a group of artists who painted scenes from America’s rapidly growing cities in a style that did not ignore the dark and gritty aspects of urban life.

Bellows is probably best known for his 1924 painting Dempsey and Firpo, which depicts the legendary boxing champion Jack Dempsey being knocked out of the ring by challenger Luis Firpo, in a moment of glory that Firpo was ultimately left to enjoy in lieu of victory.

It is an iconic work because it has a bloody, sweaty urban setting that reflects the artist’s love of the sporting life. Bellows was an accomplished athlete who played both baseball and basketball at Ohio State University, in his birthplace of Columbus.

“The subject of the lone fisherman trying to harness nature suggests the ethos of the physical and ideological manhood of Bellows’ generation that stemmed from President Theodore Roosevelt’s belief in the ‘strenuous life,’ ” Reece-Hughes says.

“We think he painted about 500 canvases, but he devoted about 250 to the sea. It was really a pivotal theme in his lifetime,” says Reece-Hughes, noting that Bellows died young — at 42 — as a result of a ruptured appendix.

“I think, for him, the sea was a way of changing up his palette. When you’re talking about the Ashcan School, there is that kind of earthy, muddier palette. When he started looking at the sea, it started inspiring him.”

But while The Fisherman is typical of Bellows in many ways, it also has some unique qualities.

Nearly all of the scenes Bellows painted of seascapes and men working on the seashore were inspired by the Atlantic coast, where Bellows spent most of his career. The Fisherman depicts its central subject dropping his line into the Pacific Ocean.

“He went out to California and painted about 25 pictures while he was there. But only 13 of those have survived,” Reece-Hughes says. “This was really his masterwork from that moment in his career.”

Aesthetically, the 30-inch-by-44-inch painting is a striking canvas that Reece-Hughes praises for its “exuberant brushstrokes and thick oil paint along with a palette of brilliant hues to depict the raw power of the ocean.”

It is also an extremely valuable painting. Carter officials are tight-lipped about how much was paid for the work, which had previously been held by private owners (including one of the owners of the New York Mets, for a time) and had been seen by the public only when it was on loan to various museums and galleries.

Other high-profile acquisitions of Bellows paintings have fetched impressive sums. In 1999, Microsoft founder Bill Gates paid $27.5 million for Bellows’ The Polo Crowd. And in 2014, London’s National Gallery paid $25.5 million for his Men of the Docks.

The Fisherman will be installed in a gallery area at the Carter now featuring other Ashcan artists such as Stuart Davis and John Sloan. Hanging nearby will be the lithograph Stag Night at Sharkey’s, a 1909 boxing picture that presages Dempsey and Firpo.

“We are continuing the legacy that [Carter founder] Ruth Carter Stevenson started where we are not only acquiring iconic artists of the canon, but also unique pieces from their oeuvres,” Reece-Hughes says.

Museum officials say they also feel the painting beautifully reflects the Carter’s interest in artists who found their muses in the American West.

“The acquisition of The Fisherman follows the Amon Carter’s history of collecting exceptional artworks created by artists during westward sojourns. It represents the first painting of a West Coast scene to enter the collection by a key figure in the history of American art,” says Brett Abbott, the museum’s new director of collections and exhibitions.

“We very much expect this work to become a signature work for us.”

Amon Carter Museum of American Art