Boxing with Bellows

LIFE WAS hard in the early twentieth century. War and industrialisation brought about a revolution in art. Cubism, futurism and constructivism ushered in a blockish future of hard edges and fragmented forms. American realist painter, George Bellows (1882–1925) had a different reaction to the onset of modernity. While European masters turned to abstraction, Bellows fixed his stare on industrial man in his urban setting – and the equally imposing buildings in which he was beginning to dwell.

When he died of a ruptured appendix in 1925, he was considered one of the greatest American artists. He witnessed and documented Manhattan’s early twentieth century growth spurt with paintings of building sites and the working class at leisure. Best known for his paintings of illegal boxing matches, his most famous – and by most accounts, greatest – is Stag at Sharkeys (pictured), a painting admired for its unflinching depiction of grimy exertion.

He claimed to be painting “two men trying to kill each other.” However, he was careful to point out, “the atmosphere around the fighters is a lot more immoral than the fighters themselves.”