Thursday, August 30, 2018

What You Should Know about George Bellow’s Boxing Paintings

Probably the most important reason why this painting is important to look at is because it tells us a lot about New York City in the early 20th century. 

For example, George Bellows was an artist who lived in New York at the early part of the 20th century and was part of a school of artists called “ashcan.”  

The artists of the Ashcan School of Art were named after painting subject matter that was from the gutter or from the trash can which were the streets of New York. One of the things that’s talked about in fiction created in the early 1900s at about that era have a lot to do with literally slugging it out to make your fortune in New York City. Artists are often susceptible to seeing the era they are living in in a romantic way and George Bellows was one of those artists who enjoyed living in the early 1900s and the energy of it.

The subject matter of these two paintings is literally what today would be called “cage fighting.”  Cage fighting and boxing have a similar history in that they began first as illegal activities, also sort of like cockfighting, however, the participants in it attempted to make it somehow legitimate or legal. It was illegal to fight in New York City in the early 1900s and to sell tickets to an exhibition of fighting, so the fight promoters got around it by selling one-night memberships to a club in which the club members were invited to box. It was basically a way of stepping around the law and that’s why this painting is called “Both Members of This Club.”




The physical stuff of how George Bellows paints this and similar boxing scenes, is part of what you should know about this painting. The paint in it is super thick and applied in what looks like quick or slathered on layers that aren’t photorealistic. The (impasto) thickness of the paint, especially where light hits it, is a way of representing the light as stronger in the picture. In the backgrounds of each painting, you would, if you can see this in real life, and see that the texture is much less and the paint is actually thinner in the darker areas. Wherever like it’s a figure or person, the artist thickens up the paint. This gives the painting a kind of skin physical presence.


The cartoon or gestural quality of how the figures are painted and the faces of the audience are painted is also part of one of the qualities of the ashcan school of art in that it is a kind of exaggeration caricatures of the emotions of these dark people watching a violent brawl. Bellows draws the faces in the figures in a way it’s very similar to another “realist” or artist to show the grittier side of life, Honoré Daumier.



Another thing that makes George Bellows' paintings something that should know about is that the subject matter and the thick and thin of the painting and the energy in which it was painted probably had some influence on other artists who came after him such as Jackson Pollock. There seems to be a sort of common thread tween artists like Jackson Pollock, Thomas Hart Benton, and George Bellows.