NEW YORK - On May 1st, Sotheby’s Prints will auction three of George Bellows’ sixteen boxing prints: Between Rounds (Mason 25), Counted Out (M. 94) and Dempsey and Firpo (M. 181). Putting aside that these are some of Bellows’ most successful prints, I have always wondered why a successful artist would return to the boxing theme throughout his career. The answer seems to be that not only was Bellows a sports fan, but the subject matter lent itself to the proclivities of the Ashcan School and its view of modern urban life.

Undermining the staunch formalism, restrictive ideology and cultural refinement of the Gilded Age, the Ashcan School, with which Bellows was affiliated, depicted the gritty underbelly, illicit details and corruption of modern urban life in New York City. Prize fighting was illegal in New York City at the beginning of the 20th Century. The title of Both Members of this Club (1909) sardonically alludes to great social disparity in modern city life. Since prizefighting was illegal, private sports clubs would grant “membership” to boxers only for the duration of their bouts, as they were considered lower class citizens, which would have been all too-true in the case of the African-American fighter. Bellows graphically displays the raw passion and energy of the crowd and less-respectable aspects of urban living by converting the crowd into grotesque caricatures roaring with approval at the bloodshed. 

George W. Bellows’ Both Members of this Club, 1909. Courtesy of The National Gallery of Art.

Bellows received a slew of commissions from newspapers and magazines based on the success of Both Members of this Club to illustrate sporting events, including prizefights, which were legalized by the 1920’s. In 1923, The New York Evening Journal commissioned Bellows to illustrate the bout between Jack Dempsey and Luis Firpo at the Polo Grounds in New York on September 14, 1923 in front of 82,000 spectators (below).

George W. Bellows’ Dempsey and Firpo, 1923. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

The moment depicted in Bellows’ lithograph is just as Firpo knocks Dempsey out of the ring during the first round, after having been knocked to the canvas seven times during the first round. Bellows conveys the energy of the fight through the geometric composition, as opposed to the writhing mass in Both Members of this Club. The ropes form a grid pressed to the picture plane. Firpo’s triangular stance echoed by the position of the referee’s arms and legs conveys strength and order while, in contrast, Dempsey’s falling body accentuates the violence of the moment.

Bellows, the bald spectator depicted to the left of the fallen, was actually seated in the second row directly behind the onlooker onto whom Dempsey fell. Commenting to his friend and mentor Robert Henri, Bellows quipped, “When Dempsey was knocked through the ropes he fell in my lap. I placed him carefully back in the ring with instructions to be of good cheer.”

On May 1st, Sotheby’s will offer Dempsey and Firpo (M. 181), as well as Between Rounds, Large, First Stone (M. 25) and Counting Down (M. 94) in the New York Prints sale.