(Reuters) - The National Gallery in London has bought its first ever painting by a U.S. artist, "Men of the Docks" by George Bellows, departing from its previous policy of acquiring only paintings by artists working in Western Europe.
The gallery, which houses Britain's national collection of Western European paintings from the 13th to the 19th century, acquired the 1912 work depicting the New York waterfront from Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia.
The National Gallery used part of a fund established by the late philanthropist Paul Getty as well as exceptional donations from anonymous sources to meet the painting's price tag of 25.5 million pounds ($42 million).
"Men of the Docks" goes on display on Friday, alongside major impressionist works including snow scenes and urban vistas by Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro, in the gallery's domed building on Trafalgar Square in the heart of London.
The National Gallery receives a million American visitors a year, a spokeswoman said.
Access to the permanent collection is free, while tickets are required for some temporary exhibitions. The gallery, which started life in 1824 when the British government purchased a banker's collection of 38 pictures, receives the bulk of its income from government grants.
The Bellows acquisition marks a new direction for the gallery, which now seeks to showcase paintings in the Western European tradition rather than solely those by artists working in Western Europe.
"Bellows has almost always been seen in the context of American painting, but the way he painted owed much to Manet, and his depiction of the violence and victims of New York derived from Goya and earlier Spanish art," said Nicholas Penny, the National Gallery director, in a statement.
"He will seem as modern and original as ever in the National Gallery, but our visitors - many of them from North America - will understand him in a different way," he said.
Bellows, who is much better known in the United States than in Europe, was born in 1882 in Columbus, Ohio, and grew up to be a star athlete at Ohio State University.
He arrived in New York in 1904 and quickly made a name for himself as a talented innovator, exploring distinctively American themes such as the dramatic expansion of the city and the energy and chaos it generated. He also painted striking vistas of the rugged Atlantic coast of the state of Maine.
The National Gallery said Bellows, who died in 1925, had never traveled to Europe but had nevertheless been influenced by artistic currents emerging there in the early 20th century.
"Men of the Docks" shows workers gathered on a cold winter's day on the Brooklyn waterfront, with an ocean liner and the Manhattan skyline looming in the background.
Until now, the National Gallery owned only one American painting, "The Delaware Water Gap" by George Inness, dated about 1825. The minor work, which is only rarely shown, was not purchased by the gallery but rather transferred from the Tate, another major London gallery, in 1956. ($1 = 0.6125 British pounds)
(Editing by Ruth Pitchford)