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Robert Torchia, “George Bellows/Both Members of This Club/1909,” American Paintings, 1900–1945, NGA Online Editions, (accessed September 25, 2023).

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Sep 29, 2016 Version

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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 [fig. 1], 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.”[1] 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.[2] 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.”[3] 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.[4] 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]. Only men were admitted to prizefights at this time.[5]

The boxer on the right, whose pose is reminiscent of the Roman sculpture Borghese Gladiator (Louvre, Paris),[6] 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).[7] 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.”[8]

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]. 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.[9]

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.’”[10] 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.”[11] 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.[12] 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."[13] 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], which specifically depicts Johnson’s defeat of Jeffries in Reno, Nevada, on July 4, 1910.[14] The artist’s drawing The Savior of His Race [fig. 5], 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.[15] 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.”[16]

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.”[17]

Robert Torchia

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 History

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).

Technical Summary

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,[1] but the painting has been restretched several times. In the most recent remounting it was tacked in place out of square by approximately 2.5 cm below and to the left of its original position.

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.


Peck, Glenn C. George Bellows' Catalogue Raisonné. H.V. Allison & Co. URL: 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.
Mathews, Nancy Mowll., et al. Moving Pictures; American Art and Early Film, 1880-1910. Exh. cat. Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown; Reynolda House, Museum of American Art, Winston-Salem; Grey Art Gallery & Study Center, New York University; The Phillips Collection, Washington; 2005-2007. Manchester, 2005: 114 fig. 178, 115.
Corebett, David Peters. "Camden Town and the Ashcan: Difference, Similarity and the 'Anglo-American' in the Work of Walter Sickert and John Sloan." Art History 34, no. 4 (September 2011): 791.
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: 10-11, 23, 71, 73, 77, 78, 215, pl. 18.
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.

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