The George Bellows painting that will be reviewed and critiqued in this paper is "Stag at Sharkey's 1909." The painting is oil on canvas, 36 1/4 x 48 1/4 (91 x 112.6 centimeters). The painting was done in 1909.
Description of Painting
What Bellows has done with this painting is create an exaggeration of two boxers going at it. The boxers are locked in a bloody battle. It is a brutal image. There appears to be blood on the arms and shoulders of the boxer on the left, and it seems as though the neck and part of the back of the boxer on the right shows blood as well. The faces in the audience are twisted, grotesque, and only a very few are even discernible. Just above the boxing mat, under the right shoe of the boxer on the right is a pair of eyes and eyebrows of a face partially hidden. Likely this face belongs to a young boy. The eyes on that face show either fear or concern. To the left of that half-hidden face is a full face of a man with a cigar; when a magnifying glass zeros in on that man with a cigar his eyes are distorted and he has that same ruddy blood-like color on his right cheek and chin.
Another face to the right of the fight referee appears to have the same red blotch as is seen on the boxers' skins. He is a bald black man and just to his right the forehand and bald head of a Caucasian man who seemly can't bear to look. On the right of those two men is another fight fan that has his arms wrapped around one of the posts holding up the ropes. In the foreground there is a man seeming to look back at the artist, waving his arm toward the fighters, a cigar in his mouth.
The fighters are very tall and muscle-bound. Both men have "abs" that seem to have been well cultivated; the ripples of muscle on their legs and chests are impressive. Their heads have collided, and seem to be stuck together. The long musculature is exaggerated on both fighters from the waist up. The fighter on the right is about to land a blow with his right hand; his left hand is pushed against the bloody face of his opponent. The opponent is wearing what appears to be very brief boxing shorts, more like a thong than boxing gear such as the fighter on the right is wearing. The boxer on the right is poised to attack, his right leg in the air and his left leg used as a power thrust. The fighter on the left has his right leg fully extended and is trying it appears to ward off the aggression from his combatant.
The referee is a big burly man who appears to be trying to break the two fighters out of their clench. He face is not clearly presented; just a pair of black lines where eyebrows are.
Bellows was criticized for the ugliness of his boxing paintings, but in truth boxing is not an attractive sport; it is ugly to see men batter each other bloody. The crowd in this photo is ugly as well -- at least what few individuals are made out to be human figures. The painting is all about action and yet it is a freeze-frame of legal violence in American sports.
Analysis of "Stag-at-Sharkey's"
The referee in the painting seems unable to do anything to break the fighters apart. The Sharkey Athletic Club in Manhattan put on boxing matches for its members. Part of the reason only members could attend, according to journalist Robert Haywood, writing in the Smithsonian Studies in American Art, is that the State of New York prohibited boxing matches where admission was charged. The Laws of the State of New York (1900 edition) states that prizefighting was illegal, hence Sharkey's club was a place where men could see this brutal carnage and not break be busted by law enforcement (Haywood, 1988, p. 4). That said, Haywood notes that there were raids and arrests in places like Sharkey's until boxing was made legal a few years later.
In fact Haywood believes that Bellows captured the "conflicting attitudes towards sports and…