Painted in October 1909, the remarkably expressive and dynamic Both Members of This Club is the third and largest of George Bellows’s early prizefighting subjects. The painting’s title is a reference to the practice in private athletic clubs of introducing the contestants to the audience as “both members” to circumvent the Lewis Law of 1900 that had banned public boxing matches in New York State. Boxing was a controversial subject, but the interracial theme made this painting even more so, especially since the black boxer appears to be winning the match.
It is likely that Bellows intended Both Members of This Club as an allusion to the recent and much-publicized success of the African American professional prizefighter Jack Johnson, who had won the world heavyweight championship in 1908. The idea of a black boxing champion was so unsettling to the prejudiced social order of the time that many thought interracial bouts should be outlawed. Painted at the height of the Jim Crow era, Bellows’s powerful delineation of a white fighter about to be defeated by a black opponent was an exceptionally daring and provocative piece of social commentary.
Painted in October 1909, two months after Stag at Sharkey’s
New York Evening Mail, quoted in Charles H. Morgan, George Bellows: Painter of America (New York, 1965), 104.
For a brief discussion of the compositional nuances of the three early boxing subjects, see Michael Quick, “Technique and Theory: The Evolution of George Bellows’s Painting Style,” in Michael Quick, Jane Myers, Marianne Doezema, and Franklin Kelly, The Paintings of George Bellows (Fort Worth, TX, 1992), 21–24, figs. 14 and 15.
“Art and Artists: Pennsylvania Academy—Second Article,” New York Globe and Commercial Advertiser, Jan. 27, 1910; quoted in Charles H. Morgan, George Bellows: Painter of America (New York, 1965), 104. Marianne Doezema, George Bellows and Urban America (New York, 1992), 97, found fault with the painting’s spatial construction, saying that it belonged “to Never Neverland, and not to this mundane sphere, where such trifles as perspective have to be settled by scientific rules.”
Tom Sharkey’s Athletic Club was a bar across the street from Bellows’s studio in the Lincoln Arcade Building at Broadway and 66th Street in New York City. The Irish-born proprietor, Tom “Sailor Tom” Sharkey, was a former heavyweight champion who staged private boxing contests in the back room of his saloon. Boxing had been legalized in New York State with the passage of the Horton Law in 1896. But that act was repealed in 1900 and replaced by the Lewis Law, which prohibited the sport.
Boxing remained illegal until the passage of the Frawley Act in 1911, but even then only ten-round, no-decision bouts were allowed, in which the contestants used eight-ounce gloves.
This had changed by 1916, when Bellows represented a group of upper-class women and their escorts attending a boxing match at Madison Square Garden in his lithograph Preliminaries (see Lauris Mason, The Lithographs of George Bellows: A Catalogue Raisonné, rev. ed. [San Francisco, 1992], cat. 24).
The boxer on the right, whose pose is reminiscent of the Roman sculpture Borghese Gladiator (Louvre, Paris),
E. A. Carmean, John Wilmerding, Linda Ayres, and Deborah Chotner, Bellows: The Boxing Pictures (Washington, DC, 1982), 33.
Eleanor M. Tufts, “Bellows and Goya,” Art Journal 30 (Summer 1971): 363.
Letter from Bellows to Katherine Hiller, 1910, quoted in Thomas Beer, George W. Bellows: His Lithographs (New York, 1927), 15.
Bellows first called the painting “A Nigger and a White Man,” but soon changed this blunt and racially charged title to the more complex and allusive Both Members of This Club
Sean Wilentz, “Low Life, High Art,” The New Republic 207 (Sept. 28, 1992), 43.
Certainly Bellows intended this painting as a commentary on a much publicized recent phenomenon: the rise of the African American professional prizefighter. There were outbursts of racial antagonism after Jack Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion by defeating the white fighter Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia, in 1908. Marianne Doezema has demonstrated at length that, after Johnson’s win, the boxing world was “increasingly caught up in the vicissitudes of the ‘white hopes.’”
Marianne Doezema, George Bellows and Urban America (New York, 1992), 104.
“Topics of the Times: And May the Best Man Win!” New York Times, Nov. 1, 1909; quoted in Marianne Doezema, George Bellows and Urban America (New York, 1992), 106–107.
Some historians have attempted to identify Both Members of This Club with a specific match, but none of their suggestions are convincing.
E. A. Carmean, John Wilmerding, Linda Ayres, and Deborah Chotner, Bellows: The Boxing Pictures (Washington, DC, 1982), 78, have suggested that the painting “depicts a fight at Sharkey’s, possibly the one in March 1909 between the black Joe Gans, former lightweight champion, and Jabez White.” More recently, Charlene S. Engel, “George Bellows and Lithography: A Graphic Eye Containing Multitudes,” in D. Scott Atkinson and Charlene S. Engel, An American Pulse: The Lithographs of George Wesley Bellows (San Diego, CA, 1999), 32, n. 79, noted that “photographs of the fight between Johnson and Burns [the 1908 heavyweight championship in Sydney] show the similarities in height and physique of these fighters and those in Both Members of This Club.”
Marianne Doezema, George Bellows and Urban America (New York, 1992), 106. An interracial boxing match was held at Sharkey’s in August 1910, in which the African American fighter William Brown from San Francisco knocked William Ford from Philadelphia unconscious. “May Die from Fight Blows: William Ford Still Unconscious from Knockout at Sharkey A. C.,” New York Times, Aug. 4, 1910.
Lauris Mason and Joan Ludman, The Lithographs of George Bellows: A Catalogue Raisonné, rev. ed. (San Francisco, 1997), 35, M. 96. For a biography of Jack Johnson, see Randy Roberts, Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes (New York, 1983).
Marianne Doezema, George Bellows and Urban America (New York, 1992), 218, n. 127.
Rachel Schreiber, “George Bellows’s Boxers in Print,” Journal of Modern Periodical Studies 1, no. 2 (2010): 160.
Both Members of This Club is arguably the most expressive and dynamic of the first three major oil paintings that Bellows devoted to the sport of prizefighting. When he returned to the boxing theme with three more paintings in the early 1920s, the sport had been legalized and was more socially acceptable. In these later works, the savagery, brutality, and raw excitement that characterize the first series is absent. Because of its controversial overtones of racial antagonism, Both Members of This Club, perhaps more than any other painting of its generation, best exemplifies Robert Henri’s aesthetic dicta to depict the harsher, more vital realities of contemporary life. More than a century later, an early critic’s summation of Bellows’s early boxing paintings is still valid: “Call them brutal if you will, they hit you between the eyes with the vigor that few living artists known to us can command.”
Unidentified article in the Sun, quoted in Charles H. Morgan, George Bellows: Painter of America (New York, 1965), 104.
September 29, 2016
lower right: Geo Bellows
The artist [1882-1925]; by inheritance to his wife, Emma S. Bellows [1884-1959]; purchased 29 September 1944 through (H.V. Allison & Co., New York) by Chester Dale [1883-1962], New York; gift 1944 to NGA.
- Exhibition of Independent Artists, Galleries at 29-31 West 35th Street, New York, April 1910, no. 53.
- Fifth Annual Exhibition of Selected Paintings by American Artists, Albright Art Gallery, Buffalo, May-September 1910, no. 12.
- Fifth Annual Exhibition of Selected Paintings by American Artists, The City Art Museum, St. Louis, September-November 1910, no. 11.
- One Hundred and Fifth Annual Exhibition, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, January-March 1910, no. 338.
- Exhibition of Paintings [by 12 different artists], The MacDowell Club, New York, 1917, no. 3.
- Memorial Exhibition of the Work of George Bellows, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1925, no. 10, repro.
- Thirty-Six Paintings by George Bellows, Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, Ohio, 1940, no catalogue.
- Art in Progress: Fifteenth Anniversary Exhibition: Painting, Sculpture, Prints, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, May-October 1944, unnumbered catalogue, repro. 39.
- Paintings by George Bellows, H.V. Allison & Co., New York, March-April 1944, unnumbered checklist.
- George Bellows: Paintings, Drawings and Prints, Art Institute of Chicago, January-March 1946, no. 6, repro.
- Robert Henri & Five of his Pupils, The Century Association, New York, April-June 1946, no. 6, repro.
- George Bellows: A Retrospective Exhibition, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1957, no. 14, repro.
- The Chester Dale Bequest, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1965, unnumbered checklist.
- Bellows: The Boxing Pictures, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1982, no. 3, fig. 29, pl. 5.
- George Bellows, National Gallery of Art, Washington; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2012-2013, pl. 18 (shown only in Washington).
- Peck, Glenn C. George Bellows' Catalogue Raisonné. H.V. Allison & Co. URL: http://www.hvallison.com. Accessed 16 August 2016.
- Barrows, Edward M. "George Bellows, Athlete." The North American Review 242, no. 2 (1 December 1936): 297.
- Salpeter, Harry. "George Bellows, Native." Esquire 5, no. 4 (April 1936): 137.
- Boswell, Peyton, Jr. George Bellows. New York, 1942: 17.
- Mechlin, Leila. "In the Art World: Two Paintings by George Bellows Acquired by National Gallery." The Washington Star (7 January 1945): C:6.
- Watson, Jane. "Two Bellows Gifts Made Here." The Washington Post (7 January 1945): 11S.
- Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds., Great Paintings from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1952: 180, color repro.
- Bouton, Margaret. American Painting in the National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., 1959 (Booklet Number One in Ten Schools of Painting in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.): 40, color repro.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 328, repro.
- Morgan, Charles H. George Bellows. Painter of America. New York, 1965: 101-102, 104, repro. 323.
- Paintings other than French in the Chester Dale Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 48, repro.
- Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds. A Pageant of Painting from the National Gallery of Art. 2 vols. New York, 1966: 2:502, color repro.
- Young, Mahonri Sharp. "George Bellows: Master of the Prize Fight." Apollo 89 (February 1969): 138 fig. 8, 139.
- American Paintings and Sculpture: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1970: 16, repro.
- Braider, Donald. George Bellows and the Ashcan School of Painting. New York, 1971: 54, fig. 8.
- Young, Mahonri Sharp. The Eight. New York, 1973: 42, color pl. 11.
- Gerdts, William H. The Great American Nude: A History in Art. New York, 1974: 158-162, fig. 8-5.
- King, Marian. Adventures in Art: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1978: 109, pl. 70.
- Watson, Ross. The National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1979: 125-126, pl. 113.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1980: 26, repro.
- Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1980: 17, no. 53, color repro.
- Williams, William James. A Heritage of American Paintings from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1981: 205, color repro. 220.
- Carmean, E.A., Jr., et al. Bellows: The Boxing Pictures. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1982: no. 3, fig. 29, pl. 5, 32-36, 77-78.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 571, no. 869, color repro.
- Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. Rev. ed. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1988: 166, no. 60, color repro.
- Zurier, Rebecca. "Hey Kids: Children in the Comics & the Art of George Bellows." Print Collector's Newsletter 18, no. 6 (January-February 1988): 200-201, repro.
- Kelly, Frankin. "George Bellows' Shore House." Studies in the History of Art 37 (1990): 121, repro. no. 7.
- Kopper, Philip. America's National Gallery of Art: A Gift to the Nation. New York, 1991: 239, 242, color repro.
- Adams, Henry. "George Bellows [exh. review]." The Burlington Magazine 134, no. 1075 (October 1992): 686.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 29, repro.
- Doezema, Marianne. George Bellows and Urban America. New Haven and London, 1992: 101-113, fig. 44, color pl. 11.
- National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 246, repro.
- Quick, Michael, Jane Myers, Marianne Doezema, and Franklin Kelly. The Paintings of George Bellows. Exh. cat. Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Columbus (Ohio) Museum of Art; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, 1992-1993. New York, 1992: 21-22, figs. 14 and 15.
- Craven, Wayne. American Art: History and Culture. New York, 1994: 433, fig. 29.12.
- Weinberg, H. Barbara, Doreen Bolger, and David Park Curry. American Impressionism and Realism: The Painting of Modern Life, 1885-1915. Exh. cat. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth; Denver Art Museum; Los Angeles County Museum of Art. New York, 1994: 240, fig. 225.
- Clark, Carol, and Allen Guttmann. "Artists and Athletes." Journal of Sports History 22 (Summer 1995): repro. 103, 104-105.
- Zurier, Rebecca, Robert W. Snyder, and Virginia M. Mecklenburg. Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and Their New York. Exh. cat. National Museum of American Art, Washington. Washington and New York, 1995: 46-47, fig. 44.
- Hughes, Robert. American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America. New York, 1997: 334, color fig. 203.
- Pinkus, Karen. “Sport." In Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography: Themes Depicted in Works of Art. Edited by Helene E. Roberts. 2 vols. Chicago, 1998: 2:855, 856.
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 404, no. 333, color repro.
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- Corbett, David Peters. The American Experiment: George Bellows and the Ashcan Painters, with Katherine Bourguignon and Christopher Riopelle. London, 2013: 21, 22, color fig. 6.
- National Gallery of Art. Highlights from the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Washington, 2016: 274, repro.
The support consists of a medium-weight, plain-weave, single-threaded fabric tacked to a five-member, key-type stretcher with a single vertical crossbar. The artist increased the size of this work early in the painting process. Filled tack holes seen in the x-radiographs reveal sections of the support that were once folded over a smaller stretcher and acted as tacking margins (8.5–9 cm at the left edge, 9.5–10.5 cm at the right edge, and 6–8 cm at the top). The filled tack holes are visible on the reverse of the unlined painting. The stretcher appears to be original, because of the inscriptions on it,
It is inscribed on both the reverse of the original fabric and on the stretcher. On the fabric, in paint: “Geo Bellows, 1947 B’dway, NY”; in red pencil: “Both Members Of This Club”; in white chalk: “# 1000.00”. On the reverse of the stretcher, in red: “Do Not Put Any Varnish Or Oil Into This Canvas”; in pencil: “Mrs Geo Bellows, 146 E 19 St”.
The paint was applied wet into wet as a thick paste with transparent washes. Much of the color in the torso of the figure at the right is due to a thin wash of brown paint through which the light ground is visible, adding luminescence to the tone. Most of the remaining paint is applied thickly with high impasto and with quickness and spontaneity. Many artist’s changes are apparent in the texture of underlying impasto that does not match the design. Examples of these changes include a painted-out head in the lower left and a change of position in the right calf of the white fighter.
The condition of the painting is good. There are several small, patched holes and tears found on the reverse with corresponding losses of paint on the front. The painting was cleaned and inpainted in 1982. Several coats of different synthetic resin varnishes were also applied at that time.