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Robert Torchia, “George Bellows/Club Night/1907,” American Paintings, 1900–1945, NGA Online Editions, https://purl.org/nga/collection/artobject/61247 (accessed December 12, 2017).

 

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Overview

George Bellows’s paintings devoted to boxing were among the most popular pictures he produced during his lifetime and remain so today. Executed in August and September 1907, Club Night is the first of three similar boxing subjects that Bellows painted early in his career, from 1907 to 1909. Club Night represents a fight at an athletic club in New York City owned by Tom Sharkey, a former heavyweight champion. The enactment of the Lewis Law in 1900 prohibited boxing in New York State, but Sharkey and others circumvented the law by staging bouts in their private “clubs,” where attendees paid membership dues instead of admission fees to a particular fight, allowing them to legally gamble on matches. The public’s generally positive response to this controversial subject reflected an ambivalent attitude toward the sport. Some regarded boxing as a savage, brutal pastime, but many thought it a natural manifestation of masculinity. When criticized for not accurately representing certain technical aspects of the sport, Bellows responded, “I don’t know anything about boxing. I’m just painting two men trying to kill each other.”

In addition to precedents in the work of the American realist Thomas Eakins, Bellows’s boxing paintings paid homage to the European painters recommended to him by his teacher and mentor, Robert Henri. Whereas Bellows later drew inspiration from the rich black tonalities and biting satire of the 17th-century Spanish master Francisco de Goya for Both Members of This Club, the smoky, atmospheric haze that envelops the scene in Club Night and Bellows’s painterly technique and rendering of the crowd owes much to the great 19th-century French painter and caricaturist, Honoré Daumier.

Entry

The famous series of six oil paintings that Bellows devoted to the sport of prizefighting has had enduring appeal as a set of images that captures the essence of early 20th-century urban American life.[1] Executed in August and September 1907, Club Night is the first of three similar boxing subjects that the precocious Bellows painted in his mid-20s [fig. 1]. He returned to the theme in 1909 with Stag at Sharkey’s [fig. 2] and Both Members of This Club. Although Bellows made a number of lithographs devoted to the subject beginning in 1916 [fig. 3], he did not produce another boxing scene in oil until 1923, when he painted Introducing John L. Sullivan (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York). In 1924 he produced the two final pictures of the series: Ringside Seats (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC) and Dempsey and Firpo (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York). In addition to their art historical significance, these paintings are important documents that illustrate the evolution of professional boxing in the United States.

Bellows first called this painting A Stag at Sharkey’s and named his second boxing subject Club Night. When the Cleveland Museum purchased the latter in 1922, he switched their titles at the museum’s request.[2] The original title was derived from a bar called Tom Sharkey’s Athletic Club that was 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.[3] Sharkey and others circumvented the Lewis Law by staging bouts in their private “clubs,” where attendees paid membership dues instead of admission fees so that they could gamble on the outcome of the events. To maintain the act, boxers were announced in the ring as “both members of this club.” Professional boxing was a proletarian sport, and its practitioners were mainly poor immigrants who lived in squalid urban neighborhoods. Habitués of places like Sharkey’s were from more socially diverse groups, such as neighborhood regulars and middle- and upper-class men who frequented New York’s demimonde [fig. 4]. Only men were admitted to prizefights at this time.[4]

Bellows was first introduced to Sharkey’s by a boxer named Mosey King, who was a friend of Bellows’s roommate, Ed Keefe.[5] King had held the New England featherweight and lightweight titles before retiring in 1906 (he later had a 46-year career as the boxing coach at Yale University). The artist later remembered: “Before I married and became semirespectable, I lived on Broadway opposite the Sharkey Athletic Club, where it was possible under law to become a ‘Member’ and see the fights for a price.”[6] Bellows first documented the activities there in The Knock Out [fig. 5], a detailed pastel-and-ink drawing in which a referee attempts to restrain the victor from inflicting further damage on an opponent who lies dazed on the floor. He then painted Forty-two Kids before returning to the prizefighting theme with Club Night.

Bellows was not the first American artist to depict boxing matches. As the sport grew in popularity during the second half of the 19th century, it increasingly appealed to folk artists, illustrators, and political cartoonists, as well as to academic painters. Thomas Eakins (American, 1844 - 1916), an artist that Bellows later pronounced “one of the best of all the world’s masters,”[7] dealt with the subject in a series of three major paintings: Salutat (1898, Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA), Taking the Count [fig. 6], and Between Rounds (1899, Philadelphia Museum of Art). Bellows would certainly have been familiar with these works, but, characteristic of his generation, he eschewed Eakins’s noble, idealized interpretation of pugilism in favor of the gritty realism advocated by his friend and mentor Robert Henri (American, 1865 - 1929). Bellows’s boxing paintings have more in common with his contemporary William Glackens's illustrations for H. R. Durant’s story “A Sucker” in Cosmopolitan (May 1905), for example A Right-hand Hook [fig. 7], and George Luks’s related subject The Wrestlers (1905, Boston Museum of Fine Art, MA).[8]

In addition to Eakins, Bellows’s boxing paintings also pay homage to the European painters recommended to him by Henri. Whereas Bellows later drew inspiration from the rich black tonalities and biting satire of the 17th-century Spanish master Francisco de Goya (Spanish, 1746 - 1828) for Both Members of this Club, the smoky, atmospheric haze that envelops the scene in Club Night and Bellows's painterly technique and rendering of the crowd owes much to the great 19th-century French painter and caricaturist Honoré Daumier (French, 1808 - 1879). The critic James G. Huneker succinctly described the visceral effect of Club Night:

It is a brutal boxing match (surely four ounce gloves) about to degenerate into a clinch and a mixup [sic]. One pugilist is lunging in the act of delivering a “soaker” to his adversary. You hear, you feel the dull impact of the blow. A sodden set of brute mugs ring the circle—upon the platform the light is concentrated. It is not pleasing, this, or edifying, but for the artists and amateur the play of muscles and the various attitudes and gestures are absolutely exciting.[9]

Further heightening the drama of the composition, Bellows has used a low viewpoint, creating the impression that the spectator observes the struggle from just behind the audience that is gathered around the raised platform. Additionally, the harsh electric light dramatically illuminates the contestants’ muscular bodies so that they stand out in relief against the dark background.

Bellows, who in his 1909 copyright application simply described Club Night as “two prize fighters [sic], one on the right lunges blow at crouching opponent on the left,”[10] based the painting on his personal observations of the unsavory proceedings at Sharkey’s, and then executed it from memory in his studio. When boxing experts criticized him for depicting stances and gestures that real pugilists would never have used, he replied, “I don’t know anything about boxing. I’m just painting two men trying to kill each other.” To another such criticism he responded: “Who cares what a prize fighter looks like? It’s his muscles that count.”[11] Bellows’s lack of interest in the technical aspects of boxing did not detract from his ability to convey a vivid impression of the atmosphere at Sharkey’s. Huneker’s comment above is remarkably similar to the eyewitness account of French traveler Paul Charles Joseph Bourget, who attended a boxing match during the early 1890s:

The blows fall more heavily as the fight progresses. The bodies bend to avoid them. The two men are furious. One hears their breathing and the dull thud of the fists as they fall on the naked flesh. After several blows of harder delivery, the ‘claret’ is drawn, as they say, the blood flows from the eyes, the nose, the ears, it smears the cheeks and the mouth, it stains the fists with its warm and red flow, while the public expresses its delight by howls, which the striking of the gong alone stops.[12]

Even though its unsavory subject defied the era’s conservative social mores, Club Night was accepted for exhibition at the National Academy of Design’s “Winter Exhibition” that opened on December 14, 1907. Despite being disadvantageously hung over a doorway, the painting attracted considerable attention and commentary. A critic observed that “if the extreme of realism is sought, it may be found over the door of the Vanderbilt Gallery, as if placed there for the benefit of persons accustomed to looking up from ringside. Its title, ‘A Stag at Sharkey’s,’ suggests a recent police problem.”[13]

Another reviewer would later interpret Stag at Sharkey’s (then still called Club Night) as an outright condemnation of prizefighting:

It may be difficult for many to see why an artist who had the temperament to paint…other canvases with so much refinement should choose to paint such a subject as a prize fight, a large canvas called ‘Club Night.’ On a closer study of this painting, however, we find no attempt to glorify prize fighting; it is, rather, a painting inspired by disgust for such an exhibition; everything in the whole canvas reeks of degradation. There can be magnificence in a certain phase of brutal strength; there is eloquence in physical encounter which intoxicates to the extent of blinding one to the depravity of the proceedings. Lines, muscles, and action in a painting can convey this eloquence, but in the ‘Club Night’ we witness a prize fight shorn of all eloquence. Even the lines, although wonderful in their expressiveness, lack all nobility, portraying only the real quality of such a contest. One is convinced the author of the painting was inspired by the depravity of the scene rather than by the outcome of such a contest. The same can be said of the composition. The leering faces of the men who are sitting around the raised platform are all so powerfully suggestive of the artist’s attitude of mind. I should be very much surprised if Mr. Bellows denied this.[14]

Bellows had already stated in 1910, “I am not interested in the morality of prize fighting. But let me say that the atmosphere around the fighters is a lot more immoral than the fighters themselves.”[15] The heavily caricatured treatment of the spectators in the Gallery’s Club Night, some of whom wear formal dress in an allusion to the wealthy men who “slummed” by attending these events, suggests a degree of social criticism. Caught up in the frenzied, violent atmosphere, they leer up at the pugilists, and their exaggerated facial expressions suggest that they derive a vicarious—and perhaps even voyeuristic—thrill from the sadistic match.[16]

Bellows’s boxing images were censored numerous times during their exhibition in his home state of Ohio. A former schoolmate, the sports reporter Charlie Grant, arranged for Club Night to be displayed in the dining room of the Cleveland Athletic Club in 1908 in the hope that it might be acquired by that institution. Although a local newspaper called the painting “a remarkable specimen of the realist school,”[17] the purchase was eventually rejected on the grounds that the subject was offensive to female guests. In Columbus in 1911, Bellows’s boxing drawing The Knock Out was quarantined in a separate gallery away from women and children.

Critics reacted with simultaneous admiration and revulsion for the morally ambiguous spectacle of two heroic prizefighters locked in a titanic struggle within the confines of a sleazy, smoke-filled back room of a New York saloon. Both the artist’s interpretation of the subject and the public’s response to it reflect the uncertain status of boxing at the time. While many Americans found prizefighting a brutal and savage pastime, others thought that recreational boxing, and even settling disputes with fisticuffs, was a natural manifestation of masculinity. No less a person than President Theodore Roosevelt practiced boxing and openly advocated the sport. Marianne Doezema has discussed how Bellows’s boxing subjects evolved in an era when “concerns about the impact of industrialization and urbanization . . . were expressed as fear of overcivilization and degeneracy, but fundamentally as anxiety about virility in American life.”[18] The period’s fascination with athletic activities in general and boxing in particular was a manifestation of concerns about declining masculinity, and Bellows’s sensational paintings attracted notoriety because they “flaunted the prim codes of effete society and brandished one of the most primal manifestations of masculine hardness.”[19]

Critics also considered Bellows’s choice of subject matter and artistic style to be directly influenced by his own masculinity. One allowed that the boxing subjects of Stag at Sharkey’s and Both Members of This Club were undeniably brutal, but that “they hit you between the eyes with a vigor that few living artists known to us can command. Take any of these Parisian chaps, beginning with Henri Matisse, who make a specialty of movement—well, their work is ladylike in comparison with the red blood of Bellows.”[20] When Club Night was shown at the National Academy of Design’s winter exhibition in 1908, a critic commented that it was one of two pictures by the artist in which “he has presented passing phases of the town in a manly, uncompromising manner.”[21] By early 1911, when Bellows had his first solo exhibition at the Madison Art Galleries, his reputation had become so inextricably bound to his boxing pictures that one critic used pugilistic terminology to describe his entire oeuvre: “The strong arm method of painting is what George goes in for, and he has got art pounded to a frazzle here in this twenty-four-round contest. Two dozen heavyweight pictures and a knock-out [sic] punch in every one!”[22]

In 1922, Bellows looked back on Club Night and pronounced it “not much good.”[23] It had been his first attempt to paint a major canvas devoted to the theme of prizefighting, and he probably felt that the idea was better developed in the more dramatic and energetic Stag at Sharkey’s and Both Members of This Club. Even today, the latter two paintings have greatly overshadowed their lesser-known predecessor. Nevertheless, Club Night is a powerful image in which Bellows recorded his initial impressions of the savage fights in the backroom of Sharkey’s Athletic Club and established the basis for further explorations of what would become his most famous subject.

Robert Torchia

September 29, 2016

Provenance

(The Hackett Galleries, New York); purchased 1930[1] by John Hay Whitney [1904-1982], Manhasset, New York; deeded 1982 to the John Hay Whitney Charitable Trust, New York; gift 1982 to NGA.

Exhibition History
1907
Winter Exhibition, National Academy of Design, New York, 1907-1908, no. 383, as A Stag at Sharkey's.
1908
One Hundred Third Annual Exhibition, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, January-February 1908, no. 251, as A Stag at Sharkey's.
1908
Twelfth Annual Exhibition, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, April-June 1908, no. 20, as A Stag at Sharkey's.
1909
Art Department, State Fair of Texas, Dallas, October 1909, no. 7, as A Stag at Sharkeys.
1909
Cleveland Athletic Club, Ohio, 1909, as A Stag at Sharkey's [according to the artist's Record Book].[1]
1909
Pen and Pencil Club, Columbus, Ohio, 1909, as A Stag at Sharkey's [according to the artist's Record Book].
1909
Southern Hotel, Columbus, Ohio, 1909, as A Stag at Sharkey's [according to the artist's Record Book].
1915
Paintings by George Bellows, N.A., Gallery of Fine and Applied Arts, Los Angeles, 1915, possibly no. 16.
1925
Commemorative Exhibition by Members of the National Academy of Design (1825-1925), Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Grand Central Art Galleries, New York, 1925-1926, no. 249, repro.
1934
Sport in Art from Ancient to Modern Times, for the Benefit of the Artists and Writers Dinner Club, The Junior League of the City of New York, 1934.
1957
George Bellows: A Retrospective Exhibition, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1957, no. 5, repro.
1958
The Museum and Its Friends: Twentieth-Century American Art from Collections of the Friends of the Whitney Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1958, no. 6, repro.
1959
The American Muse: Parallel Trends in Literature and Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1959, no. 14.
1960
Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture Collected by Yale Alumni: An Exhibition, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut, May-June 1960, no. 131, repro.
1960
The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Exhibition of Independent Artists in 1910, Delaware Art Center, Wilmington; Graham Gallery, New York, January-April 1960, no. 2.[2]
1966
George Bellows: Paintings, Drawings, Lithographs, The Gallery of Modern Art, New York, 1966, no. 8 (of paintings list), repro.
1968
American Art from Alumni Collections, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut, 1968, no. 143, repro.
1971
What is American in American Art, M. Knoedler and Co. [benefit exhibition for the Museum of American Folk Art], New York, 1971, no. 89, repro., as Club Night at Sharkey's.
1982
Bellows: The Boxing Pictures, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1982-1983, no. 1, fig. 25, pl. 7.
1983
The John Hay Whitney Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1983, no. 66, repro.
1984
The American Figure: Vanderlyn to Bellows, Mansfield Art Center, Ohio, 1984, no. 45, repro.
1986
Loan to display with the permanent collection, National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C., 1986-1987.
1992
The Artist at Ringside, The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio; The National Art Museum of Sport, Indianapolis, 1992, unnumbered checklist, repro. 27 (shown only in Youngstown).
1992
The Paintings of George Bellows, Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Columbus Museum of Art; Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, 1992-1993, fig. 8 (shown only in New York, Columbus, and Fort Worth).
1994
American Impression and Realism: The Painting of Modern Life, 1885-1915, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth; The Denver Art Museum; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1994-1995, no. 3, fig. 223.
1996
Visions of America: Urban Realism 1900-1945, Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio; Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City; The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio, 1996, no. 1, repro.
1998
Gifts to the Nation from Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998-1999, no catalogue.
1999
America: The New World in 19th-Century Painting, Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, 1999, no. 135, repro.
2005
Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film, 1880-1910, Grey Art Gallery & Study Center, New York University, New York; The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., 2005-2007, unnumbered catalogue, fig. 175.
2007
Life's Pleasures: The Ashcan Artist's Brush with Leisure, 1895-1925, Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville; The New -York Historical Society; The Detroit institute of Arts, 2007-2008, no. 34, repro.
2009
American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life 1765-1915, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2009-2010, unnumbered catalogue, fig. 174.
2012
George Bellows, National Gallery of Art, Washington; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2012- 2013, pl. 16.
2013
George Bellows and the American Experience, Columbus Museum of Art, 2013-2014, no catalogue.
Exhibition History Notes

[1] In addition to the artist's own record, the painting is documented as having been exhibited at the Cleveland Athletic Club in "A Stag at Sharkey's, Real Fight Picture," Cleveland Press (18 December 1908): 12.
[2] Although the NGA painting was included in this exhibition as if it had been in the 1910 exhibition whose fiftieth anniversary was being celebrated, it was actually the Cleveland Museum of Art's painting Stag at Sharkey's (known as Club Night prior to 1921/1922) that was in the original 1910 show.

Bibliography
n.d.
Peck, Glenn C. George Bellows' Catalogue Raisonné. H.V. Allison & Co. URL: http://www.hvallison.com. Accessed 16 August 2016.
1912
"George Bellows, An Artist with 'Red Blood.'" Current Literature 53, no. 3 (September 1912): 334, repro.
1928
Jackman, Rilla Evelyn. American Arts. Chicago, 1928: 282.
1929
Bellows, Emma Louise Story. The Paintings of George Bellows. New York, 1929: 7, repro.
1936
Barrows, Edward M. "George Bellows, Athlete." The North American Review 242, no. 2 (1 December 1936): 297.
1936
Salpeter, Harry. "George Bellows, Native." Esquire 5, no. 4 (April 1936): 137.
1942
Boswell, Peyton, Jr. George Bellows. New York, 1942: 17, repro.
1965
Morgan, Charles H. George Bellows. Painter of America. New York, 1965: 9, 76–78, 89–90, 255, repro. 312.
1971
Braider, Donald. George Bellows and the Ashcan School of Painting. New York, 1971: 43, 45, 48, 132.
1982
Carmean, E.A., Jr., et al. Bellows: The Boxing Pictures. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1982: no. 1, fig. 25, pl. 7, 29-31, 73-74.
1984
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 572, no. 873, color repro.
1992
American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 28, repro.
1992
Doezema, Marianne. George Bellows and Urban America. New Haven and London, 1992: 83-89, fig. 33, color pl. 8.
1992
Doezema, Marianne. "The New York City of George Bellows." Antiques 141, no. 3 (March 1992): 487, color pl. 10.
1992
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: 13, 19, 21, 105-106, 107, 108, fig. 8.
1995
Oates, Joyce Carol. George Bellows: American Artist. Hopewell, New Jersey, 1995: 3-5.
2007
Haverstock, Mary Sayre. George Bellows: An Artist in Action. Columbus, Ohio, 2007: 37-38, color repro. 39.
2012
Brock, Charles, et al. George Bellows. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2012-2013. Washington and New York, 2012: 23, 39, 41, 71, 74, 77, 215, pl. 16.
Technical Summary

The painting is executed on a medium-weight, plain-weave canvas that has been primed with a white ground. It is lined with a more tightly woven plain-weave canvas and aqueous adhesive, and is stretched onto a five-member, keyable stretcher that is probably not original. The size of the painted surface has been expanded by approximately one inch on both the top and bottom, apparently by flattening the original tacking margins and making them part of the painting. All along these edges, filled tack holes are clearly visible, as well as ridges of paint that would have marked the original dimensions of the painting. The paint has been applied thickly in dark tones with visible brushwork. Scumbles of lighter paint describe many of the details. Some brushstroke texture visible in raking light that is unrelated to the visible image suggests a different painting beneath. X-radiographs confirm the existence of a boy’s portrait under the visible painting, oriented so that the left edge of Club Night would be the top of the portrait [fig. 1]. There are some other artist’s changes in the positions of the boxers’ gloves and in the silhouette of the boxer at the left, particularly in the position of his proper left leg. The painting was treated in 2010. In this treatment, a few old losses were revealed during the removal of an old, discolored, natural resin varnish. The losses were re-inpainted and a layer of synthetic resin varnish was applied to the painting.