When I was younger, my father, who was (and still is) a Hudson River painting collector/dealer, tried desperately to expose me to as many different things as possible and is probably the main reason that I am the collector/hoarder that I am today. I do greatly enjoy and respect the luminescent pastorals that the Hudson River School had to offer and hung from time to time in my house, but at the same time, they were not the types of paintings that I saw myself owning and hanging in my own house.
One evening, my father, as he was wont to do, asked me to review a Sotheby’s catalog with him in our living room at home. There were a number of Hudson River School paintings of interest that were up for auction, but as he continued to flip through, something caught my eye. It was a lithograph of Bellows’ “Preliminaries (to the Big Bout)” (1916).
The subject matter coupled with the close attention to figures and their interest (or lack thereof) to the fight stayed with me. My father went on to tell me that he had brokered and sold a copy of the aforementioned lithograph with his partner as well as a copy of the more impressive “Introducing George Carpentier” (1921) which thrilled me even more.
Boxing had always fascinated me as I was brought up in a house that ordered most of the major pay-per-views of the early-late 90′s. It was only natural that I would eat this up. My father, noticing my interest, began to educate me on the “Ashcan Painters.” Bellows, like many other great early 20th century realists, was under the tutelage of Robert Henri in NYC. Bellows rubbed elbows with artists like John Sloan, Everett Shinn, George Luks and Reginald Marsh; this group of artists were referred to collectively as the Ashcan Painters because of the crude, unbridled depiction of urbanity in both its glory and filth. Instead of a lush, pastoral landscape or an impressionistic portrait of a woman with a parasol, these artists were painting hold-ups, kids bathing in the Hudson, burlesque shows, train tracks, dive bars, circuses, Coney Island…and boxing matches.
At 13, my family visited my uncle outside of Washington DC. While in DC, my uncle and father suggested that we visit the National Gallery. As with any giant museum, I was immediately overwhelmed. After jogging through rooms of classics, we headed across the museum to the more modern wing. The highlight of the visit for me without a doubt was the wall dedicated to Bellows’ oil and canvas, “Both Members of This Club” (1909).
The painting is obviously important from a cultural standpoint as this was a white man fighting a black man in the same boxing club in 1909; but I was more impressed with the stark color contrast, the close attention to the sinewy physiques of the fighters and the energy in the figures in the crowd (particularly the Joker-faced spectator to the right of the black man’s calf). 1909 is also important as it predates the Armory Show in 1913 where the European Modernist movement started to gain momentum. A sub-sect of Henri’s school and artistic peers of Bellows, called “The Eight,” gained their critical notoriety from a NYC show in 1908.
I’ve also had the pleasure of seeing Bellows’ most iconic oil on canvas in person at the Whitney: “Dempsey and Firpo” (1924)
The painting is a snapshot of a title fight between Jack Dempsey and Luis Firpo. Luis Firpo, a promising world-class heavyweight, challenged the then champion, Jack Dempsey and the bout was booked for September 14th, 1923 at the Polo Grounds in NY. As the story goes, Firpo dropped Dempsey in the beginning of first round; Dempsey got back to his feet and knocked Firpo down seven times (predating the 3KO limit per round and the rule prohibiting you from downing a half-downed opponent…Jesus). At the very end of the first round, Firpo backed Dempsey up against the ropes and rocked Dempsey’s chin sending him through the ropes and out onto the press table. Hell of a first round!
Bellows based his oil on a lithograph titled “Dempsey Through the Ropes” from the year prior which now goes for north of $100,000 at auction. This image has been facsimiled by the likes of the U.S. Armed Forces and The Simpsons.
My favorite Bellows without a doubt is “A Stag at Sharkey’s” (1909). No, not because this was painted during an era when fighters were allowed to wear banana hammocks, nor because the referee looks like a tubby version of my father; I love the gorgeous violence of the image, the raw physicality, the amalgam of flesh tones. The clash, like two rams butting heads, is even more brutal than “Both Members of This Club” shown above. Sharkey’s was the boxing club which Bellows regulared that was across the street from his NYC flat. And if I remember correctly, I’m pretty sure that Bellows painted himself between the left boxer’s straddle (man in the hat). I tried to recreate this in charcoal for my final project in Studio Art. The result was just shy of laughable.
I mentioned writing this article to my father whom I visited a few evenings ago and he brought me to his library to look at a catalog of Bellows’ lithographs. I had forgotten all about this one which actually graces the cover of the catalog: “A Knockout” (1921):
Love the guy with the cigar at bottom left. And who’s that referee? Big John McCarthy?
He also flipped to Bellows’ studies of pool which are extremely cool. My father regrettably passed on an edition of “Indoor Athlete” (1921) this past year at auction.
My perfect man cave would have a pool table at one end of a black-walled room, surrounded by individually lit boxing and pool lithographs and framed period boxing photographs. I’ll probably never own a George Bellows, but I may eventually be in the position to buy a Robert Riggs, another lithographer that had some great boxing studies. Some day.