The savagery and spectacle of prize-fighting a century ago are at the heart of an exhibit of works by American realist master George Bellows
This is an article from the June 4, 2012 issue
ART CRITICS would eventually shower George Bellows with adjectives that might have been used to describe him playing baseball and basketball during his youth in late-19th-century Columbus, Ohio: talented, versatile, productive, unflinching.
As a child who liked to draw, Bellows had felt alienated from his peers, but that began to evaporate over the summer of 1892 when regulars at the sandlot at the end of his street let George, then 10, keep score and write accounts of their baseball games. He soon became general manager of the team, and by 15 he had taken up residency as its shortstop. The Indianapolis Hoosiers of the Western Association tried to sign him out of high school, but he enrolled at Ohio State (photo, above), where he starred for the basketball team and earned baseball letters as a sophomore and junior. Then, in 1904, he dropped out, spurning the interest of the Cincinnati Reds to enroll at the New York School of Art.
The young man who arrived in Manhattan was 6'2", with a baritone voice and an ambling grace. The vitality with which Bellows would work, play and engage in the debates swirling around his craft during two decades at the center of the New York art scene spoke to his beginnings as an athlete. "We discussed everything from Ty Cobb to El Greco," recalled fellow painter Eugene Speicher.
Semipro wages of $5 to $10 a game from a baseball team, the Brooklyn Howards, and a basketball club, the New York Colonials, helped relieve the young artist's penury. Yet in team pictures Bellows is often at the periphery; even as a participant, he seemed to seek the vantage point of the observer. He would find creative force in that transactional space between fan and athlete.
Bellows himself negotiated that passage in part because of an accident of Manhattan geography. Close to his studio at 65th and Broadway, former pro boxer "Sailor" Tom Sharkey staged bouts in the back room of his saloon. Public boxing was then permitted only in "private clubs" like Sharkey's, which required everyone to become a member, if only for the evening. Here was the sport stripped bare: weight classes be damned, doctors rarely at ringside and referees disinclined to step in until the audience's bloodlust had been sated.
On June 10, George Bellows, the first comprehensive retrospective of his work in 30 years, opens at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., with further stops at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in the fall and London's Royal Academy of Arts next spring. "These are the greatest sporting images in American art," curator Charles Brock says of Bellows's boxing work, which includes six oils and scores of lithographs and drawings. "Bellows is an intensely serious and ambitious artist speaking to the entire history of art. His work can appeal on a popular level but aspires to the highest place in the culture."
Oil on canvas
STAG AT SHARKEY'S (1909)
This image best captures the primal, lawless demimonde of boxing at "private clubs." The fighters are only fleetingly glimpsed, and the entire scene bleeds into a void of darkness. In 1910 the canvas caused a sensation at the Exhibition of Independent Artists in New York City, announcing Bellows as a talent capable of ushering late-19th-century U.S. art, with its relatively formal renderings of idealized subjects, into an era more reflective of the gritty hurly-burly of the 20th.
Oil on canvas
BOTH MEMBERS OF THIS CLUB (1909)
To stay on the right side of the law, announcers at venues like Sharkey's introduced opponents as "both members of this club." Here the fighters are essentially naked. (One reason Bellows returned to boxing so often is that it allowed him to render the classical nude in a topical setting.) Once again the artist has taken care not to put a recognizable face on either fighter. "A prizefighter's muscles are his e pluribus unum," Bellows once put it. "The expression on his face is about as important as the polish on a locomotive's headlight."
PRELIMINARIES TO THE BIG BOUT (1916)
In many of Bellows's early boxing works a man with a demonic expression throws a backward glance through the frame, implicating us in the watching. Here, in a print inspired by the first bout in Madison Square Garden to be attended by women, a socialite plays that role. Once again Bellows, the former baseball player, serves as a kind of cultural shortstop, splitting the distance between observer and participant, juxtaposing the effete and the savage. The fox stole of the woman at right reminds us that even with a tonier clientele, the bestial still bleeds into the crowd. "I am not interested in the morality of prizefighting," the artist once said, "but let me say that the atmosphere around the fighters is a lot more immoral than the fighters themselves."
Oil on canvas
DEMPSEY AND FIRPO (1924)
If you were to take this—one of the last canvases Bellows painted—and set it next to Stag at Sharkey's, the two would be endpoints on a time line tracing the evolution of boxing from the smoky back rooms of private clubs to the great indoor and outdoor arenas. By the 1920s the sport was legal, regulated and, if not entirely respectable, at least a public spectacle, and Bellows has captured each of these characteristics in a work that's a kind of poster-art souvenir of the 1923 fight between Jack Dempsey and Argentina's Luis Angel Firpo at the Polo Grounds. Gone is the darkness of Stag, with the unfinished bodies and unrecognizable faces of the boxers signaling the dehumanizing fury of an off-the-books prizefight. Instead we have brighter, more even lighting; the strikingly professional onlookers ringside (the bald man at left is thought to be the artist himself, very much on assignment); even a stolid and recognizable rendering of Firpo, the Wild Bull of the Pampas, who has just knocked Dempsey through the ropes. You'd never know it from the instant captured here, during the fight's first round, but Dempsey would scramble back into the ring and, in the second round, knock the Argentine out.
INTRODUCING GEORGES CARPENTIER (1921)
The New York World sent Bellows to illustrate Dempsey's fight against the light heavyweight champion, Georges Carpentier of France, on a remorselessly hot and humid July afternoon in Jersey City. Bellows's portrait of the two—Carpentier (standing, near left) seems to have just stepped from the parlor in his dressing gown, while Dempsey (seated, far left) is methodically taping his hands—foretells that the Frenchman will lose, as he did in the fourth round. The scene is saturated with detail. "Every artist," Bellows said, "is a great reporter of life, keeping his eyes open for some hitherto untold piece of reality to put on his canvas."
THE WHITE HOPE (1921)
After Jack Johnson became the first African-American heavyweight champion, in 1908, a series of "great white hopes" tried unavailingly to beat him. The most famous was James J. Jeffries, who came out of retirement to meet the clamor of the white public. On July 4, 1910, Johnson felled Jeffries three times to win on a TKO, touching off race riots in dozens of cities. The bout led Bellows, a champion of progressive political causes, to produce this image, which emphasizes the fighters' humanity through an artistic decision rare for him: to depict their faces. As one newspaper report put it, "Johnson was as eager as a wild cat at the end. Jeffries was like a bear mortally wounded."