George Bellows — “Dempsey and Firpo” (1924) and Other Paintings From the Ring

17 Dec

George Wesley Bellows, Dempsey and Firpo (1924)

Note: click on any image to enlarge.

Born in Columbus, Ohio, George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925) was an American realist painter known for his depictions of gritty urban life in New York City.     Though not himself a founding member of the Ashcan School (the acknowledged founders of the School were William Glackens, Robert Henri, George Luks, Everett Shinn, John French Sloan, Thomas Anshutz, Arthur B. Davies, Ernest Lawson and Maurice Prendergast), Bellows was a direct descendant and strong adherent of the School’s guiding principles and became one of the most acclaimed artists of his generation.

Nowhere is Bellows’s realist penchant more dramatically on display than in his depictions of the sport of boxing in the first several decades of the 20th Century.  What these paintings share is a tremendous sense of the raw, animal savagery of the ring.  It’s also well worth noting Bellows’s giddy spectators — most of whom are in a high state of excitement at the spectacle taking place before them.  The violence depicted in these paintings is clearly shared by all concerned.

George Wesley Bellows, Both Members of This Club (1909)

These are all beautiful paintings with a tremendous sense of contained motion.  The most famous is Dempsey and Firpo (1924), in which Bellows depicts the moment, in Round 1 of the 1923 fight, when Luis Firpo knocked Jack Dempsey completely out of the ring.  In Round 2, remarkably, Dempsey came back and knocked out Firpo to win the fight.   You can practically feel the paint moving in this one.

Much as I love Dempsey and Firpo, Bellows’s other boxing paintings are just as spectacular.  In Both Members of This Club, Club Night and Stag at Sharkey’s, the artist uses dark, almost sinister, backgrounds to highlight the elegant violence taking place in the ring, which he highlights using warm earth tones.  Bellows finds something epic in each of the fights depicted.  

George Wesley Bellows, Club Night (1907)

George Wesley Bellows, Stag at Sharkey’s (1909)  

Bellows combines a tremendous understanding of human anatomy, color and composition in these paintings.  More than that, he conveys a vivid understanding of the savagery which, for better or worse, has been part of human nature throughout history.  There’s not a little of Ernest Hemingway in a George Bellows painting.  I hope you enjoy his work as much as I do.

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