A Stag at Sharkey's

 
Artist
Creation date
Materials
lithograph
Mark Descriptions
signed in pencil, below image, L.R.: Geo Bellows | inscribed in pencil, below image, L.L.: No 4; inscribed in pencil, below image, L.C.: A Stage at Sharkey's
Dimensions
18-5/8 x 23-7/8 in. (image) 21-3/8 x 27-3/4 in. (sheet)
Credit line
Gift of Mrs. George Ball
Accession number
26.5
Collection
Not Currently On View
Mrs. George Ball, Muncie, Indiana; given to the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 1926 (26.5).
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New York City Prizefights

“The retired heavyweight boxer "Sailor" Tom Sharkey ran "stags," that is, illegal prizefights for all-male audiences, in the cellar of his saloon at Broadway and 65th Street on Manhattan's Upper West Side. George Bellows's studio was across the street. An all-around athlete at Ohio State University, Bellows parlayed his knowledge of sports into paintings of boxing that displayed a new and unflinching realism. He frequented an informal group of artists, later dubbed the Ashcan School, who painted urban life on the unfashionable side of the street in early 1900s New York City.

In 1916, Bellows's interest turned to lithography, and he revisited his prizefight subjects, including his earlier painting titled A Stag at Sharkey's. In the translation from oil paint to lithographic crayon, Bellows expunged the colors of flesh and blood and burnished away detail under the white glare of the spotlights. He ennobled his two brawlers into a pair of sculpted warriors balancing at a point of momentary equilibrium. In the process, a brutal slice of New York City life metamorphosed into a classic all-American lithograph. For all its classical qualities, the print possesses the immediacy of a drawing made at ringside-the kind Bellows had once made as a newspaper sketch artist. The artist depicts himself here, the balding man half seen in the crowd on the far side of the ring bending over a sketch pad.”

Lee, Ellen Wardwell, Anne Robinson, and Alexandra Bonfante-Warren. Indianapolis Museum of Art: Highlights of the Collection. Indianapolis: Indianapolis Museum of Art, 2005, p. 169.

Emphasizing Vigor and Intensity

“A comparison of Bellows’ early lithographs of prizefights with later ones demonstrates the greater vitality and spontaneity of the former which diminished as he revealed an ever-increasing interest in formal problems in successive lithographic versions of the subject.

Stag at Sharkey’s of 1917, is representative of the less contrived conceptions. The more formally controlled versions of the subject are such prints as Dempsey Through the Ropes (1924). Stag at Sharkey’s bears some relation to the Masses cover called ‘Playmates’ of March, 1915. In both the illustration and the lithograph the figures are loosely drawn and energetic in their locked combat. The basic positions of the fighters are similar, parallel to the picture plane and form sharp diagonal lines against the rectangular shape of the ring. Of course, both the illustration and the lithograph are related to the painting Stag at Sharkey’s (1908), which like them emphasized the vigor and intensity of the boxers.”

Engel, Charlene Stant. "George W. Bellows' Illustrations for the Masses and Other Magazines and the Sources of His Lithographs of 1916-17." Ph.D. dissertation. University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1976, pp. 123-130.

Sharkey Athletic Club

“Manhattan venues such as the Sharkey Athletic Club provided a forum for boxing and its style of male camaraderie. The state strove to prevent matches at which admission was charged (page 587 of the 1900 edition of Laws of the State of New York records that prizefighting was illegal), but the law proved an insufficient obstruction for the fans and promoters.

At Sharkey’s, Bellows witnessed an institution entirely different from that of the YMCA [where he resided from 1904 until 1906]. Comparing the Sharkey Athletic Club and the Young Men’s Christian Association—their reasons for being, their members, and society’s perception of them—illustrates the conflicting attitudes toward sports and sports institutions prevalent in the early part of this century, attitudes that Bellows advances and satirizes in his work. We have already seen Bellows’s amusing lithographs of older, ill-shaped YMCA members. This was not the public’s view of the institution. The YMCA was upheld by middle-class society as moral, sanitary, and in harmony with social and individual improvement. Participating in the YMCA’s sports program provided an active route for integration into respectable society, which valued a healthy and vital body. Viewed by these mainstream moralists, clubs like Sharkey’s were often condemned as sordid spaces, where lowly men, many of whom were immigrants, engaged in dangerous, animal-like combat. Participating by attending a fight at Sharkey’s offered the thrill of illicitness and revolt against authority and mainstream society. The YMCA was founded partly to teach young men how to be law-abiding citizens, while Sharkey’s flourished helping prizefighting fans circumvent the law.

Stag at Sharkey’s and Bellows’s other major boxing painting of this period, Both Members of This Club, forcefully capture the tawdry underworld flavor that was associated with the “prizefighting clubs.” In 1909 the state exerted control through raids and arrests, attempting to prevent a fight altogether. Soon prizefighting was not only legal again, it was also watched by a regulatory agency, the New York Boxing Commission. It was highly fashionable to attend the extravagantly publicized Dempsey and Firpo match of 1924, while the fights staged just fifteen years earlier at Sharkey’s lured unfashionable men into its dark, illicit space. Bellows’s effectiveness in rendering this world is emphasized when we contrast Stag at Sharkey’s with his 1924 painting, Dempsey and Firpo, commissioned for the New York Evening Journal.

Haywood, Robert. “George Bellows’ Stag at Sharkey’s: Boxing, Violence, and Male Identity,” Smithsonian Studies in American Art, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Spring 1988), pp. 3-15.

Indianapolis Museum of Art: Highlights of the Collection (2005)

The retired heavyweight boxer "Sailor" Tom Sharkey ran "stags," that is, illegal prizefights for all-male audiences, in the cellar of his saloon at Broadway and 65th Street on Manhattan's Upper West Side. George Bellows's studio was across the street. An all-around athlete at Ohio State University, Bellows parlayed his knowledge of sports into paintings of boxing that displayed a new and unflinching realism. He frequented an informal group of artists, later dubbed the Ashcan School, who painted urban life on the unfashionable side of the street in early 1900s New York City.

In 1916, Bellows's interest turned to lithography, and he revisited his prizefight subjects, including his earlier painting titled A Stag at Sharkey's. In the translation from oil paint to lithographic crayon, Bellows expunged the colors of flesh and blood and burnished away detail under the white glare of the spotlights. He ennobled his two brawlers into a pair of sculpted warriors balancing at a point of momentary equilibrium. In the process, a brutal slice of New York City life metamorphosed into a classic all-American lithograph. For all its classical qualities, the print possesses the immediacy of a drawing made at ringside-the kind Bellows had once made as a newspaper sketch artist. The artist depicts himself here, the balding man half seen in the crowd on the far side of the ring bending over a sketch pad.

I don't know anything about boxing. I'm just painting two men trying to kill each other.
-George Bellows