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Chester Dale

In addition to his renowned collection of 19th-century French impressionist paintings, highly sought after by major museums across the country, Chester Dale also admired and collected works by the American painter George Bellows (American, 1882 - 1925), a contemporary he had befriended in his youth in New York. By tragic happenstance, Bellows’s paintings were eligible to be incorporated into the permanent collection shortly after the Gallery opened because of the artist’s death from appendicitis at the age of 42 in 1925. Late in 1944, Dale, keenly aware of the pending 20th anniversary of Bellows’s demise, purchased what many would consider the artist’s greatest and most controversial painting, the iconic interracial boxing image Both Members of This Club [fig. 1]. Shortly afterward, Dale bequeathed the work to the Gallery so that it could enter the permanent collection the moment it became eligible on January 8, 1945.

Dale’s gift of Both Members of This Club could not have been more significant for the future of American modernism at the Gallery. The painting’s brutal, shocking subject matter and slashing, expressionistic brushwork broke decisively from the pieties of the Victorian past and embodied the raw violence and new energies that modernism had unleashed. No other American painting of the first decade of the 20th century declared its modernity more forcefully or expressed more insistently how important the achievements of Bellows’s generation were and would be to the history of American art. Moreover, no other painting could have revealed so plainly the arbitrariness of the rule that prevented the inclusion of American modernists in the National Gallery of Art collection until well after their deaths.

Eventually, in 1963, the irrevocable terms that Dale attached to his bequest led directly to the termination of the 20-year rule. The Dale bequest put the trustees in a bind because it included major paintings by the most prominent of all living modernists, Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881 - 1973), and many others who would be precluded by the 20-year policy, ranging from Guy Pène du Bois (American, 1884 - 1958) to Henri Matisse (French, 1869 - 1954). John Walker, who had been appointed director in 1956, recalled:

When Chester Dale died in 1962 . . . the trustees were confronted with a problem. The penalty for refusing to show the work of living painters would have been the loss of an invaluable collection. For, according to Chester Dale’s will, his gift to the National Gallery of Art was subject to the condition that ‘said trustees of the National Gallery of Art shall agree to accept all of the property bequeathed to it.’ . . . [The trustees] recognized that pragmatism is of necessity the philosophy of museums. By their acceptance of the Chester Dale Collection, in January 1963, they automatically had an obligation to exhibit the work of living painters.”[1]

Because of Dale’s terms, no longer would distinctions be made between painters like Bellows, who were unfortunate enough to have died in the teens and twenties, and his contemporaries like Georgia O'Keeffe (American, 1887 - 1986), or for that matter leading European modernists like Picasso, who lived well past the midcentury mark. Among Dale’s 1963 bequest were two additional masterpieces by Bellows, The Lone Tenement [fig. 2] and Blue Morning [fig. 3], works that further strengthened the Gallery’s Bellows holdings and firmly established the artist as one of the pillars of the Gallery’s American modernism collection.

Notes

[1] John Walker, National Gallery of Art, Washington (New York, 1979), 49–50.