This Sporting Life

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Stag at Sharkey’s 1909. George Bellows (American, 1882–1925). Oil on canvas; 92 x 122.6 cm. Hinman B. Hurlbut Collection 1133.1922

Sporting images punctuate the career of George Bellows (1882–1925), who is best known for his boxing picture, Stag at Sharkey’s, in the Cleveland Museum of Art. Considered shockingly vulgar in its day, the painting is now widely admired for its audaciously gutsy subject rendered in a dazzlingly vigorous technique. The museum’s next focus exhibition presents the masterpiece alongside a choice selection of nearly two dozen of his paintings, drawings, and lithographs that also feature depictions of athletic competition and fitness.

An accomplished athlete, Bellows was an especially appropriate artist to address the subject of sports. He played baseball and basketball as a youth in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, developing sufficient ability to letter in both at Ohio State University. According to some accounts, scouts for the Cincinnati Reds took notice of his shortstop talents. However, Bellows’s first love—art—ultimately intervened, and after his junior year he left Ohio State for New York to study painting. In a remarkably short period he became the leading artist of his generation. In his later years he developed recreational passions for tennis and billiards, which he routinely played with friends. Bellows’s life was cut short at the age of 42, due to complications that set in after his appendix ruptured.

Bellows’s creative trajectory coincided with the remarkable rise of sports in American culture. By the time the artist came of age at the dawn of the 20th century, sports had transitioned from informal rural entertainments to organized urban pursuits. The popularity of sports continued to increase dramatically, attracting participants and captivating spectators from virtually every background and demographic. During the golden age of sports in the 1920s, some activities—including billiards, boxing, professional baseball, and college football—became national obsessions.

An astute observer, chronicler, and interpreter of the world around him, Bellows presented his sporting subjects as microcosms of society. A notable array of contemporary social issues infuse these works, set in locales ranging from crowded tenement neighborhoods to sprawling millionaire estates. Ultimately for the artist, sports were metaphors for life itself, and his images of skill and rivalry stand as potent symbols for the brash competitive spirit of modern America. 

 


Cleveland Art, May/June 2016