Painted in October 1909, two months after Stag at Sharkey’s [fig. 1] [fig. 1] George Bellows, Stag at Sharkey's, 1909, oil on canvas, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Hinman B. Hurlbut Collection 1133.1922. © The Cleveland Museum of Art, Both Members of This Club is the third and largest of Bellows’s early prizefighting subjects (the first being Club Night). When initially seen by the public at the 105th Annual Exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1910 (in which Stag at Sharkey’s also appeared), a critic declared it “a powerful piece of work . . . a masterpiece of portrayal.” Bellows adhered to the same basic triangular composition that he had used so effectively in Club Night and Stag at Sharkey’s by representing the two protagonists locked in a ferocious struggle on an elevated platform, towering over the audience below. Silhouetted against a black background, they are dramatically illuminated by a harsh electric light. The presence of Stag at Sharkey’s and Both Members of this Club at the Academy exhibition prompted one critic to imply that Bellows was guilty of repetitiveness: “To persuade Mr. George Bellows that the demonic energy and reality of his ring fights are excesses of a good thing . . . would be a public service, but he will doubtless find it out for himself without the assistance of any literary fellows.” In one important respect, Both Members of this Club marks a reversion to the unmitigated savagery with which Bellows imbued his first prizefight painting, Club Night: he deleted the referee who mediates the proceedings in Stag at Sharkey’s.
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 But that act was repealed in 1900 and replaced by the Lewis Law, which prohibited the sport. 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. 2] [fig. 2] Henry "Hy" Mayer, "A Knockout by the Police," from Rupert Hughes, The Real New York (New York, 1904), 145, Library of Congress. Only men were admitted to prizefights at this time.
The boxer on the right, whose pose is reminiscent of the Roman sculpture Borghese Gladiator (Louvre, Paris), indisputably has the advantage, as he thrusts himself into his adversary. The white boxer shows all the signs of imminent defeat: his knee has begun to buckle, his body tilts precariously backward, his face and ribs are bloodied, and his head is oriented upward. The frenzied crowd below, sensing that the decisive moment in the contest has arrived, is completely absorbed in the action. Two figures at the far left have climbed up from their seats and peer through the ropes to get a better view of the fight. The spectators’ faces are noticeably more caricatured than those in Bellows’s first two prizefighting pictures, and it has been suggested that he was influenced by Francisco José de Goya’s The Vision of the Pilgrims of San Isidro (1820–1823, Prado, Madrid). The contrast between the colossal, straining figures of the contestants and the leering, distorted faces around the ring remind one of Bellows’s statement that “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.”
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 [fig. 3] [fig. 3] Entry from artist’s Record Book about Both Members of This Club, The Ohio State University Libraries’ Rare Books and Manuscripts Library and the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio. The term “both members” is foremost a reference to the requirement that the contestants be declared members of the private athletic clubs where they fought to circumvent the Lewis Law. While indicating that both fighters are members of an integrated, if rather dubious, fraternity, the second title further points with caustic irony to the fact that, during this era of institutionalized racism, the boxing ring was one of the few places where whites and blacks could ostensibly play by the same rules and interact on equal terms. Sometimes pitting the white Irish and black African American underclasses against each other, violent competitions such as illicit prizefighting offered both groups an avenue for achieving at least some measure of fame and a degree of racial equality within a segregated, prejudiced society. Finally, and perhaps most disturbingly, Bellows’s title suggests the underlying violence of boxers and spectators alike and, by extension, all of humanity.
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.’” The idea of a black boxing champion was so unsettling to the social order of the time that some people thought interracial bouts should be prohibited. One writer reflected: “It is really a serious matter that, if the negro wins, thousands and thousands of other negroes will wonder whether, in claiming equality with the whites, they have not been too modest.” Bellows’s powerful delineation of a white fighter who is about to be defeated by a black opponent was a daring social commentary that challenged prevailing notions about white superiority and supremacy at the height of the Jim Crow era.
Some historians have attempted to identify Both Members of This Club with a specific match, but none of their suggestions are convincing. Although the ambience is similar to Bellows’s two previous boxing subjects set at Sharkey’s Athletic Club, interracial fights were rare at the venue. Doezema has made a plausible argument, suggesting that the painting “may represent a bout witnessed at an athletic club in another part of the city, which the artist then set in the environment he knew well from repeated visits to Sharkey’s." While Bellows was working on Both Members of This Club, promoters were trying to lure the aging white heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries out of retirement to defeat Johnson. The anxiously awaited bout was a major news story when Bellows’s painting was included in the Exhibition of Independent Artists in New York (organized by Bellows’s mentor Robert Henri). Much later, Bellows returned to the prizefight theme in his lithograph The White Hope [fig. 4] [fig. 4] George Bellows, The White Hope, 1927, lithograph, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Andrew W. Mellon Fund, which specifically depicts Johnson’s defeat of Jeffries in Reno, Nevada, on July 4, 1910. The artist’s drawing The Savior of His Race [fig. 5] [fig. 5] George Bellows, "The Savior of His Race," from The Masses 6 (May 1915): 11, Tamiment Library / Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University, the source of an illustration in the May 1915 issue of The Masses magazine, alludes to Johnson’s loss to Jess Willard on April 5, 1915, in Havana, Cuba. In her insightful study of Bellow’s boxing prints, Rachel Schreiber observes: “The cartoon and its caption mock the ways that Willard’s defeat of Johnson was touted as a triumphant contest of race. Bellows exposes the speciousness of Christian evangelism’s assumptions of white superiority.”
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.”
September 29, 2016