George Bellows is of the Ashcan School and the school of hard knocks: both institutions are rooted in realism. Bellows' interest in boxing coincided with the rise of other realists, though of different dimensions. The author Jack London and president Teddy Roosevelt were ascendent, immensely popular figures with turn of the century, hardscrabble Americans. At the time London was writing, Roosevelt was bullying, and Bellows was painting, the sport of boxing was drawing immense crowds across the country.
There is a raw, primal intensity to Bellows' paintings of boxing matches. With slashing brushstrokes of thickly applied paint, he is able to capture the animal violence and muscular brutality of man. The energy and intensity of the bout is captured in both the clashing pugilists and in the frenzied crowds surrounding the ring. "The atmosphere around the fighters is a lot more immoral than the fighters themselves," Bellows once remarked.
In "Club Night" above, the ring is illuminated by an overhead lamp, keeping the focus on the violent ballet in the center. Around the gladiatorial platform the ropes are barely discernible. The fighters, in top form, duck, bob, and pirouette around each other. The atmosphere is smoky, dim, subdued—only the fighters seem present, in their moment.
For Bellows, the ring is the stage, as if he were attending a night at the opera. Indeed, the drama can be just as intense. Boxing is stereotyped as a sport for brutes, thugs, and the working class, but Bellows' inclusions of preening high society men in tuxedos and women in furs reminds us that the sport transcends class. Although the artist keeps the spotlight on the gladiators, the aristocracy fights for our attention.
Of all of Bellow's boxing paintings (there are only a few*), "Stag at Sharkey's" is my favorite. Here, the crowd is as animated as the action in the ring. The composition of "Stag" is perfectly balanced: the planted leg on the left and the referee's arm extending linearly on the right form the sides of a pyramid, whose foundation is naturally the mat. The boxers violently collide in the middle, like two forces of nature unwilling to give. Up close, one sees that paint is thickly applied to the luminous figures, as if Bellows' artistic frenzy matched that of his subjects. The boxer on the right, painted in streaking brushstrokes, is a curling mass who courageously meets his swooping opponent in a forceful crush. Where the heads meet there is but a red, fleshy, bloody pulp. Although Bellows was an accomplished portraitist, the faces of his boxers are often obscured, crumpled, and smashed. Our focus remains on the muscular forms and violent tension in their bodies, and not on their anguished faces.
"It's so violent," said a woman behind me in the gallery. "I couldn't watch that stuff."
As for me, I was enraptured.
* I leave out of this brief discussion (and the next one) Bellows' most famous boxing painting, "Dempsey and Firpo" (1924), because I am too bothered (annoyed?) by Dempsey's elongated arm that I can hardly look at the painting, much less write about it.
This is the second in a series on the "art of boxing."
Art of Boxing, George Bellows, Sports