$27.5 million record polo painting by George Bellows

When the 1910 oil on canvas painting ‘Polo Crowd’ (45 ¼ x 63 ½ inch) by George Bellows (1882-1925) sold for a staggering $27.5 million at Sotheby’s New York salesroom in 1999 to billionaire art collector Bill Gates it set an auction record for an American painting.

George Bellows painted just three polo paintings: "The Polo Game" (1910), Private Collection, Houston; "Polo at Lakewood" (1910), Columbus Museum of Art, and "Crowd at the Polo Game" that owned tech billionaire.

"Polo Crowd" is the last of three polo scenes by the artist and is widely considered by experts to be his best work. Bellows was an American realist painter, known for his bold depictions of urban life in New York City. He became, according to the Columbus Museum of Art, "the most acclaimed American artist of his generation".

"Polo Crowd" had been in the John Hay Whitney Collection for nearly 70 years until the death in 1998 of his widow, Betsey Cushing Whitney. It was donated to the Museum of Modern Art, which chose not to keep the work.

"Polo Crowd"

"Polo Crowd," a quite startling, asymmetrical composition whose top half is mostly dark sky. The stark contrast of the rearing white polo pony and the white dresses of the many women observers are highlighted by the gleam of white on the black riding hat of a woman dressed in black at the lower right. Interestingly, only one figure faces the viewer, a man dressed in a brown coat at the far right.

"Polo at Lakewood"

Set on a green field and under a stormy sky, the polo players are engaged in an equine sport played on the backs of black, brown, and white horses. A well-attired gathering of ladies and gentlemen watch the action at the left foreground of the canvas. While Bellows had often depicted sporting events, the polo match was a new theme for him; one that stood in sharp contrast to the working-class situations that dominated his earlier Ashcan School paintings. Bellows was introduced to the upper-class crowd and leisure activity by Joseph B. Thomas who, having purchased three of his paintings in 1908, invited Bellows to a tournament.

"Polo at Lakewood" is vast in scale, measuring almost four feet high and over six feet wide. When standing in front of the painting the spectator sees that it is formed of broad, barely-separated, brush strokes and daubs of paint. Bellows conveys the impression of spontaneity with the shape of the figures and with the juxtaposition of light and dark adding to the sense of dramatic action. The whole event must have been fascinating for Bellows who later commented wryly on his experience: "Let me say that these ultra rich have got some nerve tucked away under the breast pocket [...] It's an Aladdin's lamp sort of game [...] The players are nice looking; the horses are beautiful. I believe they brush their teeth and bathe them in goat's milk. It's a great subject to draw".

"The Polo Game"

American painter and printmaker George Wesley Bellows played a crucial role in early 20th century American art. He depicted contemporary scenes of everyday life in urban environments through an overtly Realist approach, presenting the realities of tenement life on the Lower East Side, the bristly physicality of men working on the docks, or widely attended popular sporting events. 

Bellows’s prints and paintings occupy museums, galleries and collections across the United States, both large and small. The Boston Public Library holds a considerable selection of his prints, while many of his major paintings can be found at the Columbus Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of Art, the National Gallery, the Museum of Modern Art and many other major institutions.



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