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
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.
John Wilmerding has observed that, “They were among his most popular pictures in his lifetime and have remained compelling for audiences to this day.” John Wilmerding, “Bellows’ Boxing Pictures and the American Tradition,” in E. A. Carmean, John Wilmerding, Linda Ayres, and Deborah Chotner, Bellows: The Boxing Pictures (Washington, DC, 1982), 13.
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 change in title was explained by Bellows’s wife Emma in an interview she gave in February 1955 to Kib Bramhall for his senior thesis on Bellows at Princeton. Bramhall wrote: “An interesting sidelight . . . was explained to me by Mrs. Bellows. . . . In 1922 the Cleveland Museum . . . preferred the colorful title Stag at Sharkey’s and asked George if he would mind switching the names . . . Bellows readily agreed.” Bramhall shared this reference in a letter to Franklin Kelly, deputy director and chief curator, National Gallery of Art, dated February 10, 2013.
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).
Bellows was first introduced to Sharkey’s by a boxer named Mosey King, who was a friend of Bellows’s roommate, Ed Keefe.
Charles H. Morgan, George Bellows: Painter of America (New York, 1965), 69.
George Bellows to William Milliken, June 10, 1922, curatorial files, Cleveland Museum of Art, OH; quoted in Marianne Doezema, “The ‘Real’ New York,” in Michael Quick, Jane Myers, Marianne Doezema, and Franklin Kelly, The Paintings of George Bellows (Fort Worth, TX, 1992), 105.
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.
Unspecified letter to Robert Henri of late 1917, quoted in Charles H. Morgan, George Bellows: Painter of America (New York, 1965), 215. For a discussion of Eakins’s boxing paintings, see Carl S. Smith, “The Boxing Paintings of Thomas Eakins,” Prospects 4 (1979): 403–420, and Martin A. Berger, Man Made: Thomas Eakins and the Construction of Gilded Age Manhood (Berkeley, CA, 2000), 112–120.
For a survey of American antecedents to Bellows’s boxing series, see John Wilmerding, “Bellows’ Boxing Pictures and the American Tradition,” in E. A. Carmean, John Wilmerding, Linda Ayres, and Deborah Chotner, Bellows: The Boxing Pictures (Washington, DC, 1982), 13–25. Glackens’s illustrations are discussed by Marianne Doezema in George Bellows and Urban America (New York, 1992), 80–82.
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
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.
“Academy Exhibition—Second Notice,” New York Sun, Dec. 23, 1907; quoted in Marianne Doezema, George Bellows and Urban America (New York, 1992), 67, n. 1.
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,”
E. A. Carmean, John Wilmerding, Linda Ayres, and Deborah Chotner, Bellows: The Boxing Pictures (Washington, DC, 1982), 29.
Charles H. Morgan, George Bellows: Painter of America (New York, 1965), 77.
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.
Paul Bourget, Outre-Mer: Impressions of America (New York, 1895), 334–335; quoted in Barbara Weinberg, Doreen Bolger, and David Park Curry, American Impressionism and Realism: The Painting of Modern Life, 1885–1915 (New York, 1994), 234.
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.”
“National Academy’s Exhibition Opened,” New York Herald, Dec. 14, 1907; quoted in Marianne Doezema, “The ‘Real’ New York,” in Michael Quick, Jane Myers, Marianne Doezema, and Franklin Kelly, The Paintings of George Bellows (Fort Worth, TX, 1992), 104.
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.
“The Art of George Bellows,” Aesthetics 3 (Oct. 1914–July 1915): 53.
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.”
Letter from Bellows to Katherine Hiller, 1910, quoted in Thomas Beer, George W. Bellows: His Lithographs (New York, 1927), 15.
For a discussion of the possible homoeroticism of Stag at Sharkey’s, see Robert Haywood, “George Bellows’s Stag at Sharkey’s: Boxing, Violence, and Male Identity,” Smithsonian Studies in American Art 2 (Spring 1988): 3–15.
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,”
Charles H. Morgan, George Bellows: Painter of America (New York, 1965), 89–90.
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.”
Marianne Doezema, George Bellows and Urban America (New York, 1992), 68.
Marianne Doezema, George Bellows and Urban America (New York, 1992), 69. In a more humorous vein, Bellows, who was probably sensitive to these social issues because he was an accomplished athlete, later ridiculed the national mania for physical fitness in such lithographs as Business-Men’s Class (1916, M. 20). He derived this particular lithograph from an illustration that he had made for The Masses in April 1913. Two other lithographs, The Shower-Bath (1917, M. 45) and Business-Men’s Bath (1923, M. 145), deal with the same theme.
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.”
Unspecified newspaper review from The Sun, quoted in Charles H. Morgan, George Bellows: Painter of America (New York, 1965), 104.
J. Nilsen Laurvik, “The Winter Exhibition at the National Academy of Design,” International Studio 33 (Feb. 1908): cxlii.
Undated clipping, possibly from the New York World, Jan. 1911, in Bellows’s scrapbook, Bellows Papers, Amherst College Library, quoted by Marianne Doezema, “The ‘Real’ New York,” in Michael Quick, Jane Myers, Marianne Doezema, and Franklin Kelly, The Paintings of George Bellows (Fort Worth, TX, 1992), 109.
In 1922, Bellows looked back on Club Night and pronounced it “not much good.”
Letter from Bellows to William Milliken, June 10, 1922, curatorial files, Cleveland Museum of Art, OH.
September 29, 2016
(The Hackett Galleries, New York); purchased 1930 by John Hay Whitney [1904-1982], Manhasset, New York; deeded 1982 to the John Hay Whitney Charitable Trust, New York; gift 1982 to NGA.
- Winter Exhibition, National Academy of Design, New York, 1907-1908, no. 383, as A Stag at Sharkey's.
- One Hundred Third Annual Exhibition, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, January-February 1908, no. 251, as A Stag at Sharkey's.
- Twelfth Annual Exhibition, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, April-June 1908, no. 20, as A Stag at Sharkey's.
- Art Department, State Fair of Texas, Dallas, October 1909, no. 7, as A Stag at Sharkeys.
- Cleveland Athletic Club, Ohio, 1909, as A Stag at Sharkey's [according to the artist's Record Book].
- Pen and Pencil Club, Columbus, Ohio, 1909, as A Stag at Sharkey's [according to the artist's Record Book].
- Southern Hotel, Columbus, Ohio, 1909, as A Stag at Sharkey's [according to the artist's Record Book].
- Paintings by George Bellows, N.A., Gallery of Fine and Applied Arts, Los Angeles, 1915, possibly no. 16.
- 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.
- 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.
- George Bellows: A Retrospective Exhibition, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1957, no. 5, repro.
- 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.
- The American Muse: Parallel Trends in Literature and Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1959, no. 14.
- Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture Collected by Yale Alumni: An Exhibition, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut, May-June 1960, no. 131, repro.
- The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Exhibition of Independent Artists in 1910, Delaware Art Center, Wilmington; Graham Gallery, New York, January-April 1960, no. 2.
- George Bellows: Paintings, Drawings, Lithographs, The Gallery of Modern Art, New York, 1966, no. 8 (of paintings list), repro.
- American Art from Alumni Collections, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut, 1968, no. 143, repro.
- 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.
- Bellows: The Boxing Pictures, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1982-1983, no. 1, fig. 25, pl. 7.
- The John Hay Whitney Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1983, no. 66, repro.
- The American Figure: Vanderlyn to Bellows, Mansfield Art Center, Ohio, 1984, no. 45, repro.
- Loan to display with the permanent collection, National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C., 1986-1987.
- 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).
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- Gifts to the Nation from Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998-1999, no catalogue.
- America: The New World in 19th-Century Painting, Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, 1999, no. 135, repro.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- George Bellows, National Gallery of Art, Washington; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2012- 2013, pl. 16.
- George Bellows and the American Experience, Columbus Museum of Art, 2013-2014, no catalogue.
Exhibition History Notes
 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.
 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.
- Peck, Glenn C. George Bellows' Catalogue Raisonné. H.V. Allison & Co. URL: http://www.hvallison.com. Accessed 16 August 2016.
- "George Bellows, An Artist with 'Red Blood.'" Current Literature 53, no. 3 (September 1912): 334, repro.
- Jackman, Rilla Evelyn. American Arts. Chicago, 1928: 282.
- Bellows, Emma Louise Story. The Paintings of George Bellows. New York, 1929: 7, repro.
- 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, repro.
- Morgan, Charles H. George Bellows. Painter of America. New York, 1965: 9, 76–78, 89–90, 255, repro. 312.
- Braider, Donald. George Bellows and the Ashcan School of Painting. New York, 1971: 43, 45, 48, 132.
- 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.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 572, no. 873, color repro.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 28, repro.
- Doezema, Marianne. George Bellows and Urban America. New Haven and London, 1992: 83-89, fig. 33, color pl. 8.
- Doezema, Marianne. "The New York City of George Bellows." Antiques 141, no. 3 (March 1992): 487, color pl. 10.
- 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.
- Oates, Joyce Carol. George Bellows: American Artist. Hopewell, New Jersey, 1995: 3-5.
- Haverstock, Mary Sayre. George Bellows: An Artist in Action. Columbus, Ohio, 2007: 37-38, color repro. 39.
- 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.