If you're a fight fan it's worth visiting the National Gallery of Art just to see George Bellows' painting "Both Members of This Club." Never been anything like it done in oils and you'll get a kick out of its brutal contrast to the long hair arty stuff hung near it. -- Bob McLean's sports column in the Washington Times-Herald, March 31, 1947.
Close fights are the best fights. George Bellows understood that. Like boxing at its balanced best, his three great prizefight oils -- "Club Night," "Stag at Sharkey's" and "Both Members of This Club" -- grab you by the throat. They go on view together in "Bellows: The Boxing Pictures," opening tomorrow at the National Gallery of Art. It almost hurts to see them, so high is their intensity, so heated their excitement.
Their balance makes them beautiful. There is nothing in them out of place. They are all of a piece.
Rarely has a master -- and Bellows was a master -- battled with a subject better matched to his technique.
They are paintings without distance. They embroil you in action in the center of the ring. Leather thuds on flesh. You can hear the fighters' grunts, and the growling of the crowd. The boxers lunge and flail. So does Bellows' loaded brush. His paintings smell of bar-rooms, of rosin and cigar smoke, beer and sweat and blood.
To see that Bellows was no realist, you have to break their spell. Muscles do not stretch like that. Flesh is not that green or gray. The faces of his crowd are Goyaesque cartoons. "I don't know anything about boxing," Bellows said. "I'm just painting two men trying to kill each other." Boxing does not look the way that Bellows painted it. But that's the way it feels.
Prizefighting was not yet legal in New York, at least not in public, when Bellows made these oils in 1907 and 1909. To circumvent the law, rough neighborhood saloons -- Sharkey's, for example, across the street from Bellows' studio -- would close their doors on fight nights, to immediately reopen as members-only clubs. Genteel folk did not attend. Women were excluded. Bellows loved the fights.
George Bellows (1882-1925) was no ruffian. An Ohioan by birth, he was a charming, strapping fellow, equally at ease with conservatives and radicals, elegants and toughs. "I arose," he wrote, "surrounded by Methodists and Republicans." When he first came to New York, he made his pocket money by playing semi-professional baseball, at five dollars a game, and by singing in a church quartet "loudly . . . but without conviction at three dollars a week." Everybody liked him. He sold portraits to the rich, and drawings to the pulps. He was accepted by the left -- his illustrations frequently appeared in The Masses. The right embraced him, too. He became, in 1909, the youngest member ever elected to the incredibly conservative National Academy. A student of Robert Henri, and a junior member in good standing of the Ashcan School, he must have been a smoothie. It was his boxing pictures that first brought him fame.
The Gallery's John Wilmerding, who helped put this show together, tellingly compares them to a trio of prizefight pictures painted by Thomas Eakins in 1898 and 1899. Eakins' boxers stand motionless, in crystal light. Bellows' boxers move. Eakins' art is classical. Bellows' art is modern. Less than a decade separates their paintings. To compare them you would think a century had passed.
Bellows' boxing pictures, particularly his early ones, seem in many ways prophetic. In the swiftness of their brushwork, in the way they catch the rush of flowing movement, in their hostility to elegance and sordidness of subject, they seem to be predictive of painting yet to come. What is even eerier is that they prophesy photography. The few fight photos of the day, much like Eakins' paintings, make boxers look like statues.
Bellows, in these oils, had taken strands from older art -- from Goya and Daumier, from English sporting prints and Winslow Homer's genre scenes, from the urban coarsenes of the Ashcan School and the cartoons of the magazines -- and woven something new.
Free as Bellows' brushwork was in the beginning, his art was never loose. There are half a dozen oils in this show, one remarkable pastel, as well as more than 30 lithographs and drawings. All of them are built on skeletons of order. A rigorous geometry underlies each one.
Bellows all his life loved pyramids and parallels and triangles that rhymed. In 1917, after he discovered "dynamic symmetry," a system of geometric formulae for pictorial organization promoted by Jay Hambridge, Bellows would insist that "proportion was almost everything in a work of art." But his loyalty to measure and to order had been there from the start.
All his later lithographs star geometry, not movement. His boxers come, in time, to look like rounded, streamlined objects, less like lunging athletes than polished steel balloons. The oldest boxing picture in the exhibition is "The Knock Out" (1907). The newest, "Dempsey Through the Ropes," is from 1923-24. Bellows would become a remarkable lithographer. But good as his art was at the end of his career, it was better at the start.
At his death in 1925, he was one of the most popular painters in America. The strongest work on view is the Gallery's own oil, "Both Members of This Club" (1909), a 1945 gift from Chester Dale. The Gallery, in those days, accepted only art by artists who had been dead at least 20 years. On the first day it was eligible, "Both Members" went on view. (The picture has been newly cleaned. It has never looked so fine.) In 1957, the Gallery gave Bellows yet another honor, its first one-man show.
"Bellows: The Boxing Pictures" was organized jointly by Wilmerding, the Gallery's curator of American art and senior curator, and E.A. Carmean, the curator of 20th-century art. Their exhibition closes Jan. 2.