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. 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] [fig. 1] Entry from artist's Record Book about Club Night, The Ohio State University Libraries’ Rare Books and Manuscripts Library and the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio. He returned to the theme in 1909 with Stag at Sharkey’s [fig. 2] [fig. 2] 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 and Both Members of This Club. Although Bellows made a number of lithographs devoted to the subject beginning in 1916 [fig. 3] [fig. 3] George Bellows, The White Hope, 1927, lithograph, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Andrew W. Mellon Fund, 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. 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 But that act was repealed in 1900 and replaced by the Lewis Law, which prohibited the sport. 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] [fig. 4] 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.
Bellows was first introduced to Sharkey’s by a boxer named Mosey King, who was a friend of Bellows’s roommate, Ed Keefe. 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.” Bellows first documented the activities there in The Knock Out [fig. 5] [fig. 5] George Bellows, The Knock Out, 1907, pastel, ink, and graphite, Crystal Bridges Museum of Art, Bentonville, Arkansas. Image: Dwight Primiano, 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,” 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] [fig. 6] Thomas Eakins, Taking the Count, 1899, oil on canvas, Yale University Art Gallery, Whitney Collections of Sporting Art, Given in Memory of Harry Payne Whitney, B.A. 1894, and Payne Whitney, B.A. 1898, by Francis P. Garvan, B.A. 1897, M.A. (Hon.), 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] [fig. 7] William Glackens, "A right-hand hook had landed squarely on the point of his chin. It was all over," from H. R. Durant, "The Sucker," Cosmopolitan 39, no. 1 (May 1905): 90, Library of Congress, and George Luks’s related subject The Wrestlers (1905, Boston Museum of Fine Art, MA).
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 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.
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,” 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.” 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.
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.”
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.
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.” 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.
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,” 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.” 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.”
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.” 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.” 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!”
In 1922, Bellows looked back on Club Night and pronounced it “not much good.” 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.
September 29, 2016