Anyone who knows me knows that I bear what some might describe as an alarming allegiance to Cleveland, Ohio, the city I call home. In fact, I once (somewhat jokingly) described Cleveland as the cultural capital of the world. While that assertion is questionable at best, I truly do believe it whenever I go to the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Every time I return home, I somehow find myself in front of George Bellows’ iconic 1909 painting “Stag at Sharkey’s” at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Arguably his greatest work, “Sharkey’s” is uniquely visceral, dynamic and engaging. Bellows, an Ohioan himself, solidly belongs to the American Realism canon, yet “Sharkey’s”’s gestural brushstrokes and treatment of light allude to a surprisingly Impressionist approach. Beyond the photographic details of the moment, he captures the raw energy of the boxing club and celebrates the beauty of the human form.
Bellows infuses movement into the piece, applying the paint wet-on-wet with dynamic brushwork to create liveliness and texture in his composition. In a particularly spectacular section, he paints the area of impact where one fighter strikes his elbow against the face of the other. With a blur of red strokes, he evokes both the bloodied flesh of the boxer’s face and the rippling force of the hit. Later boxing paintings like “Dempsey and Firpo” (1924) lack the same vitality that “Sharkey’s” exudes. In “Dempsey and Firpo,” Bellows opts for a smooth, polished painting technique that ultimately engenders a more lifeless, sculptural take on boxing. On the contrary, his bold, mostly unblended brushstrokes in “Sharkey’s” make it one of his most exciting pieces.
Even within the aggressive, masculine power of his painting, Bellows portrays his athletes with an undeniable elegance. The men seem to be dancing, their legs raised in a version of passé. On the left, he exaggerates the long, extended line of the lunging boxer. On the right, he heightens the curvature of the fighter’s contracted torso and the grounded plié of his supporting leg. In this ballet of sorts, I find strong elements of Edgar Degas in Bellows’ work. Both artists studied the human form through ephemeral brushstrokes, exploring the physicality of their subjects and the gracefulness of their movement.
Ballet seemed to be a fitting subject matter for Degas’s fine art, given its similar prestige among the cultural consumers of the urban elite. But Bellows’s muse was inherently more unconventional. Boxing remained a largely underground, illicit operation, decidedly a pastime of the working class. That his boxing paintings somehow appealed to both the traditional and the experimental tastes of his day speaks volumes to Bellows’s artistic talent and ability to draw grandeur from unexpected places.
In “Sharkey’s,” the grandeur comes from Bellows’ masterful construction of light. Subtle streaks of white highlight the sinews of the athletes in motion. In the light, he showcases bodies pushed to their physical limits. He illustrates the strain in their lean musculature, the sheer force behind their movement. The light that shines onto the competitors kindles a remarkably optimistic tone despite the gruesome nature of the fight. As their skin glows against the backdrop of the dark and smokey room, Bellows illuminates the enduring resiliency of the human spirit.
Every time I come back to “Sharkey’s,” I find a newfound appreciation for the place I call home and the art that continues to inspire me. In the colliding bodies of the boxers in front of me, Bellows shows me the surprising beauty of their innate human struggle and their search for a fleeting moment of feeling vividly alive.