Everyone knows the saga of the Titanic. She represented the first in a new fleet of trans-Atlantic vessels, the Olympic Class, built for the White Star line in 1912. Her biggest assets were her three steam turbines that provided reliable power and exceptional speed. Her primary cargo was people. We remember her for the people she carried on her maiden voyage. If the story of the Titanic had not ended so abruptly, then we would recall her not with sadness but with respect for the countless lives she brought to shore. After all her task was transport. Obviously, George Bellows had no idea in February 1912, when he painted Men of the Docks, that the tragedy of the Titanic would occur scant weeks hence. He did though understand her mission. During the previous decade vast strides were being made in the design and construction of ocean liners essential for the movement of millions of immigrants from Europe to the new continent, and on the most basic level this was the impetus for his beginning Men of the Docks.
During the decade 1902 to 1912, the White Star Line took a leadership role in building and owning ships for immigrant transport. Immediately preceding the Olympic Class of boats was the Ocean Liner Class that consisted of four massive haulers that were the largest of their day until eclipsed by the Titanic. This quartet, Celtic, Cedric, Baltic, and Adriatic, were the first steamers created with separate third-class compartments, instead of just first and second-class, and each could hold in their “economy” sections a mind-boggling one thousand passengers. While human transport became a major element of ship design, there always remained cavernous holds for goods and supplies. On fore and aft decks would rise formidable masts with spar extensions, or booms, that upon docking would be put in constant use lowering the stowage to the waiting barges below. These four colossal ships plied in and out of New York harbor during Bellows frequent explorations of the Manhattan waterfront, and clearly they served as the model for the ship in his painting.
There are no accidents in Bellows’ art. For Men in the Docks he chose a canvas over five feet wide. The rationale is apparent. Anyone who has ever walked along a pier and looked at an ocean liner that bow to stern measures over two football fields in length appreciates well the sense of grandeur of these vessels, and Bellows needed a big stretch of canvas to make this ship have mass to the viewer. While ultimately the ocean liner becomes a backdrop for the foreground narrative, she still remains the backbone of the painting.
Of all the struggles encountered by foreigners after landing in this country, the most trying was finding secure employment. Every day new bodies entered the job pool and competition for fruitful wages proved intense. In no other arena was the battle fought more fiercely than on the waterfront. The never ending parade of ships needed hundreds of longshoremen each day to unload freight onto barges and then facilitate the transfer to the docks where carts or drays were waiting , led by pairs of draught horses. Although there was plenty of work, there still were more workers than jobs. Bellows understood well the rhythms of the piers. He watched the movement of goods and all the human bustle that churned all day long. Each morning for decades the dawn began on the waterfront with the shape-up where a crew boss would select the day’s contingent of laborers. Most would find employment, but a forlorn few would recognize the day as a day lost without wages or hope. In Men of the Docks, Bellows captured this moment immediately after the selection has been made. Circling one team of steeds is a glaring crowd of men. Each has an intense gaze with eyes focused towards the left. Lost almost in the shadow of the terminal building is a man alone, hobbling away with shoulders hunched and his hands deep in his pockets. Presumably, he is among the un-chosen, remembered for a brief moment in his departure. Surprisingly, no critics of Bellows’ day nor of more recent times has looked carefully at this figure disappearing in the darkness. For Bellows, the message was self-evident, he was just the observer of the event. Bellows was a genius this way, allowing the pathos of human suffering to be felt silently, while also profoundly by those who comprehended the message.
How did Bellows distill this narrative with such efficiency? How could he tell a tale with such poignancy? The secret of this success was hard work and forming in his head a complete understanding of what he wanted to say before he even began to paint. No other early twentieth century American artist was as confident as he was in starting and telling a complicated story. Bellows never approached a new subject without consideration of prior compositions. The story of the creation of Men of the Docks actually began four years before when the artist completed his first equine masterpiece, Steaming Streets ( Santa Barbara Museum of Art, CA). In this work the artist tackles a turbulent episode. Two draught horses are spooked on the street, and their master is using all his strength to rein them in. A crowd on the sidewalk stands and watches in awe. All of this activity occurs during a blizzard, and the swirling of snow and the arching back of the stallion on the right create a literal maelstrom that draws one into the center of the vortex. It is a true tour de force of energy and motion. From Steaming Streets, Bellows learned about the value of the ubiquitous work horse whose strength and character add emotional resonance to the scene as they interact with their master. The symbiotic nature of the relationship of man to animal was appreciated greatly by the viewing audience of Bellows’ day, and he would continue to incorporate aspects of this special pairing in future years. Another important discovery that Bellows made while painting Steaming Streets was that the placement of an audience within the frame of the scene actually heightens the reality of the moment portrayed for someone viewing the painting. This occurs because the onlooker intellectually enters the group and embraces their mentality. This would be a powerful tool in subsequent works and was used with stunning effect in Men of the Docks.
Over the next three winters, Bellows became ever more aware of the natural elements of the season. Winter brought snow, lots of it. The artist would spend countless days wandering the periphery of Manhattan recording in his mind the beauty of this wonderland of white. Snow blanketed and redefined the landscape, and with every new storm, there would be a fresh coating of flakes that would reshape the terrain and give him another vision to paint. Many opulent, pure winter landscapes ensued from his brush as a result, including Winter Afternoon (Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, FL) and The Palisades (Art Institute of Chicago, IL). Bellows was fascinated by the reflective brilliance of sunlight playing off the whiteness on the ground, and he spent months perfecting his skills in portraying this splendor. A key physical characteristic of snow is that it never casts a true black shadow. The snowflake will always pick up a little blue from the sky, even in the shade. Bellows made sure to keep some cerulean blue pigment on his palette to add to his shadows, and this made all of his winter scenes not only optically correct, but also glowing and radiant like sapphires. This color highlight remained a staple in the artist’s palette, and in fact it shows up in the extended shadow cast by the bulbous mooring bollard to the left of center in the present painting. While this streak of blue paint appears spontaneous, the artist knew exactly its visual impact as he stroked it with his brush, and that is mastery at work.
Besides snow, winter brought bitter cold that could extend for weeks at a time. Subfreezing temperatures would create ice shelves that extended across the rivers that surrounded New York City, and boat traffic around the island would grind to a halt, except for the occasional barge or tugboat. Bellows saw majesty in the massive ice flows, as they worked their way downstream and produced some elegant paintings in response, notably Floating Ice (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY) and Snow-Capped River (Telfair Museum of Art, Savannah, GA). These works eulogize the waterways and focus clearly on the ice, and not on people. In order to deal with the human element and the chilling effects of the cold, Bellows would have to turn to new canvases, and the one that is most relevant to our current discussion is the seminal work from January 1911 entitled Docks in Winter (Private collection). This painting is set in a blizzard on the quay with piers and slips in the distance and a driver with his pair of draught horses positioned to the center and right, respectively. Bellows showcases the driving winds of the storm. He added birds scattered across the docks that are blown about by the gale-force gust of wind. Because it is a storm, we experience the shivering effects felt by the poor horses and their owner. This is a primal reaction on our part and demonstrates the power of Bellows’ painting.
For the rest of the calendar year, Bellows would keep pushing for the viewers’ attention. He wanted to provoke curiosity. In December, he chose to paint another snapshot of daily life that would hardly seem worth the effort of stretching a new canvas, but would ultimately prove most riveting. This painting, Snow Dumpers (Columbus Museum of Art, OH), was set under the Brooklyn Bridge and dealt with the mundane task of snow removal and its disposal into the East River. Somehow, against the odds, the artist was able to make the whole affair heroic. Again, the noble work horse has been brought into the action, and six of them have been sculpted frieze-like across the width of the canvas. Their masters, though in control, feel insubstantial when juxtaposed next to their mounts. Rather than opening up the vista behind the steeds, Bellows chose to do just the opposite and compacted the middle ground with tugboat and the opposite shoreline, one on top of the other. Thus the overall scheme has the feeling of a bas-relief. As dense as the composition is, it does not feel crowded; everything has its place, and order and balance prevail throughout the work. Bellows has purposely applied the paint thickly and has created a veritable three-dimensional impasto that makes the animals and men pop out and come alive. The snow with touches of blue below them makes for a marvelous carpet upon which they pose. This whole composition with its sophisticated organization of spatial relations is without question one of the most remarkable American paintings ever painted, and the knowledge that Bellows obtained from its creation would be of great benefit to him in just a few weeks time, when he would begin Men of the Docks.
Incredibly, Bellows managed to finish yet another winter painting in the intervening weeks between the completion of Snow Dumpers and the start of Men of the Docks. Winter Road (San Diego Museum of Art, CA) was completed according to the artist’s record book in January 1912. Although the artist lists these three paintings in this sequence, we cannot assume that there is not some overlap, but with this said there does seem to be a certain logic to the serial nature of their creation. Winter Road feels quite spontaneous in its portrayal of an early seasonal snowscape when the trees still have autumnal foliage. Bellows appears at ease here and applies layer upon layer of paint with his customary dexterity. There is a calmness and quiet amid this explosion of color, and while the work has presence, Bellows seems to be taking a rest here, saving his probing mind for the masterpiece to follow.
When Bellows stood up and began to paint Men of the Docks, both his vision of what he wanted to paint and how he would paint it were firmly positioned in his mind. From Snow Dumpers he knew that this canvas needed to be all about spatial elongation, in contrast to the other work’s compression of perspective. Because of all the snow paintings that preceded it, he had gained a flair with his palette knife, and he applied stroke after stroke on this massive canvas without hesitation, never worrying about covering every square inch of the canvas. The psychological drama was the most penetrating examination of the human condition that he had ever tackled, and he succeeded in conveying his message with elan. Bellows sent the work to the 1912 Annual Exhibition of the National Academy of Design in New York as his only entry. He then submitted it the following year to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia where it would win the Sesnan medal. The painting represented a high water mark, not only for himself, but in the larger sphere of the Ash Can School. He had finished a painting that made him proud and made his peers proud, and substantiated the relevance of this artistic movement for future generations. Bellows went on to paint some wonderful works of art, and indeed some would draw upon the lessons learned with Men of the Docks. The Teamster (Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, ME), for example, is a clear instance of his incorporating the same visual elements of a trans-Atlantic ship, man and horse to tell a tale about society and transport, but that is a different and lesser story. Men of the Docks stands apart. A painting of great worth for its visual acuity, monumentality and universality. It will always be recognized as sheer poetry in its eloquence, and that is after all what art is supposed to be.