“Jackie,” a portrait of Monhegan Museum founder Jacqueline Hudson at age 4 by the artist George Bellows, is coming home to Monhegan. Courtesy of Monhegan Museum

George Bellows came to Monhegan for the first time in 1911, during an era when titans of American art like Rockwell Kent, Robert Henri and Edward Hopper walked the rugged island trails. An Ohioan who became famous for his paintings of gritty urban scenes and tough-guy boxers, Bellows fell hard for the dramatic Monhegan landscape. One summer, he completed 117 canvases on the Maine island.

In the summer of 1914, perhaps over cocktails in a home overlooking the harbor, he painted companion portraits of the sisters Jackie and Julie Hudson, the young daughters of a painter friend on the island, Eric Hudson. The portrait of Julie ended up in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bellows kept the picture of Jackie for himself. It passed to his wife after his death in 1925, and then into the hands of a private collector.

Now, more than a century after Bellows painted the 4-year-old ginger-haired “Jackie” with her precocious smirk, the painting is coming back to Monhegan thanks to a pair of Maine art collectors, who purchased the 25-inch-square painting at auction and donated it to the Monhegan Museum – a fitting and presumably final landing spot for the painting, since its subject, Jacqueline Hudson, co-founded the museum in 1968 and donated many paintings to the collection, including a bold Monhegan seascape by Bellows.

“No one knew where the painting was for 106 years. We wanted to bring it back to Maine,” said Stephen S. Fuller of Georgetown, who with his wife, Susan Bateson, purchased the painting for $106,250. “We have always collected art with an eye for bringing back to Maine and to the museum pieces that have somehow escaped.”

Robert Stahl, co-director of the Monhegan Museum, said the painting and its island narrative help humanize the story of Monhegan and its hold on America’s best-known artists. When Bellows made the portraits of the Hudson sisters, he was a star in the art world and among many celebrity painters who were on the island at that time. “They were socializing with each other the way we do today,” Stahl said. “I’d like to picture them having a few beers or a glass of wine – or 2 or 3 or 4 or 6 – and these little kids running around and getting their portraits done.”

Stahl presumes Bellows painted the sisters in the Hudson family home on the harbor. The house still exists, though is owned by another family today. Monhegan celebrated its 300th anniversary in the summer of 1914. Not only did Bellows celebrate with the islanders, he played in the band, Stahl said.

The paintings were shown on Monhegan during the tercentenary art exhibition on the island and got attention in the Christian Science Monitor, which described the paintings like this: “George Bellows sends two little maidens done with great gusto. They are ‘Julie’ and ‘Jackie,’ whom everybody sees about the island. ‘Julie’ sits straight up in a straight chair, her blond hair falling on the shoulders. A rich background of deep, warm tone accentuates the delicate tints of the face and hair and the pink ribbons. ‘Jackie’ is garbed in a dark-brown weather coat and is ready to speak or laugh or for action of some kind, a vivid rendering of a restless child.”

Bellows became one of America’s most recognized painters because of the emotion and energy with which he portrayed his subjects. An athlete who aspired to play professional baseball, he understood how to translate the sporting life and other dramatic moments into visual terms. He settled in Woodstock, New York, and died at age 42 after suffering a ruptured appendix. His paintings are widely collected, and his best seascapes and urban scenes sell for millions of dollars.

A photo of Jackie Hudson holding two dolls. Monhegan Museum of Art & History. Gift of Julie Hudson.

Hudson was a fan of his, and became a painter herself. The New York Times wrote about her death in October 2001, noting that she grew up “surrounded by her father’s artist friends, including George Bellows, Robert Henri, Edward Hopper and Rockwell Kent. They often painted on Monhegan, where the Hudson family had its summer home.”

As a painter, she exhibited at the Farnsworth Art Museum and the Portland Museum of Art. She was among among a small group of island residents who established the museum in 1968 and served in many capacities over the years. Significantly, she gave the museum much of her art collection, including the Bellows’ oil “Iron Coast, Monhegan,” which he painted the same summer he painted “Jackie,” in 1914.

“Jackie” has been in private collections since it entered the art market, briefly, in 1959 following the death of Emma S. Bellows, the artist’s wife. The New York Gallery H.V. Allison & Co. sold the painting to an art collector from Bronxville, New York, named Max Dreyfus, who made his fortune in music publishing. Dreyfus gave the painting to his chauffeur, who recently died, said Aviva Lehmann, vice president and director of American art for Heritage Auctions of New York, which handled the recent sale.

“We knew the painting existed. We knew it was in a private collection, but we did not know where exactly,” she said.

Since leaving Monhegan, the painting has been shown publicly twice, both by the Allison gallery in New York, in 1956 and again in 1963.

Jennifer Pye, co-director of the Monhegan Museum, said she did not know “another single work” more important to add to the collection. The painting is being cleaned and conserved and will be shipped to Maine this summer, and likely displayed on the island next year, Stahl said.

The painting surfaced somewhat by chance. A colleague of Lehmann’s was taking an inventory of glassware and decorative arts in the home of the deceased chauffeur and noticed the oil-on-panel painting, one of several in the house. The colleague texted a photo of the painting to Lehmann, whose specialty is American art. She knew Bellows as a member of the Ashcan school of art from his urban New York paintings, and recognized the bold and direct character of the subject in the painting as a hallmark of his work. “My heart stopped. I knew right away it was a Bellows or a Henri,” she said.

In the painting, she saw Bellows’ ability – and audacity – to catch a moment of human emotion with his energetic application of paint. “You can see it in the scrunched-up face. This is a mischievous, adorable redhead who is about to get into a lot of trouble. This is exactly what you expect to see in an Ashcan portrait,” she said.

When “Jackie” showed up on auction networks, the alerts went off among the Monhegan art enthusiasts. Edward L. Deci, the museum’s former longtime director and president of the board, was the first to notice and put out the word. Bateson and Fuller admire Deci for the work he has done for the museum over the years, and wanted to honor him by purchasing the painting. Bateson currently serves as vice president and secretary of the museum board. They purchased several paintings form Heritage Auctions previously, and alerted the auction house they would be bidding on the painting on behalf of the museum – and bidding to win.

“You wonder why Bellows just didn’t give the painting to Eric Hudson, who was his very good friend. But he kept it, and it stayed with him until he died,” Bateson said. She told her husband: “We have to find a way to buy this.”

Estimated to sell for between $70,000 and $100,000, the painting moved beyond the price range. Fuller, who was doing the bidding, kept going up, matching his adrenaline with a poker face. “You have to be careful,” he said. “Your heart is beating so fast. If you are not careful, you will pay more than you intend to.”

It is the policy of the Monhegan Museum to neither buy nor sell art, Stahl said. It depends entirely on gifts of art from supporters to build the collection. Hudson herself embodied that policy. When Bellows’ “Iron Coast, Monhegan” came up for auction in 1998, Hudson made sure she won the bid. “Monhegan is very fortunate that over the years we have had very loyal supporters of the museum, who are willing to go to bat for us when something comes up at auction or for sale,” Stahl said.

Lehmann said the “stars aligned” to make the purchase happen. On the day of the sale, another bidder who expressed serious interest in the painting could not be reached. “We just couldn’t connect. He would have gone higher, so I guess it was meant to be,” she said. “It was fate this painting is returning home.”

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