Sunday, February 7, 2021

George Bellows's Men of the Docks

What have a Lamport & Holt steamer, the Brooklyn Bridge, and John Jacob Astor in common ? The answer is : a painting !

Men of the Docks is an oil painting by American artist George Bellows. He made it in New York and finished it in 1912. The work shows you longshoremen on a wharf along the East River. The weather is cold, it has snowed and across the river we see the first sunlit skyscrapers of Manhattan. 

The work is now on display in London at the National Gallery. Purchased in 2014 at the price of $25.5 million, Bellows's painting was the museum's first major American painting. 

I invite you to watch National Gallery's curator Christopher Riopelle, who does an amazing job telling us what Bellows really painted and why the painting was particularly relevant in April 1912. Sure, you'll find out that a Lamport & Holt steamer, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Astors feature in his story as well.

Tip : You can watch the 26' video expanded up your entire screen by clicking the Full Screen button (the rightmost icon at the bottom).

George Bellows's 'Men of the Docks' | The History of the National Gallery in Six Paintings
courtesy The National Gallery

That was interesting, wasn't it? It felt like making a journey through space and time. All that remains is for me to show you the share certificates I used for the collage at the beginning of this post.

This Lamport and Holt Limited share was issued on 7 Nov 1912, only a few months after George Bellows completed his Men of the Docks. Shipping lines painted their ships' funnels (chimneys) in distinctive colours to distinguish them from competitors. In the ship vignette the funnel is printed in three shades of grey. As you could see in the Bellows painting the real funnel colors were black, white and blue.

The Brooklyn Elevated Railway Company, founded as the Brooklyn Elevated Silent Safety Railway, was in 1884 reorganized as the Brooklyn Elevated Railroad Company. One year earlier, the Brooklyn Bridge was opened. The bridge carried pedestrians, horse-drawn vehicles and elevated railway lines into the 1950s. The large vignette on this 1880 issued share includes one of the bridge's suspension towers designed in Gothic Revival style.

The Wagner Palace Car Company made luxurious sleeping and parlor cars for trains. This share was issued in 1895 to John Jacob Astor IV. He signed it on the reverse (lower image). The Astor’s owned lots of real estate property including parts of Lower Manhattan, the Times Square area and the land where the Empire State Building is now. John Jacob Astor IV was the wealthiest person aboard the Titanic. Actor Eric Braeden portrayed him in James Cameron's Titanic, starring Leonardi DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. John Jacob Astor IV did not survive the Titanic when it sank on 15 April 1912, but his pregnant wife was rescued. 


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