The Stag at Sharkey’s at the Cleveland Museum of Art, George Bellows, 1909.

In 1909, when Bellows completed this painting, prizefighting was illegal in New York. Athletic clubs such as Sharkey’s were the equivalent of Prohibition’s speakeasies — illegal, but they did a booming business. 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 The Ohio State University, Bellows parlayed his knowledge of sports (which continued to interest him and provide subjects for his work) into paintings of boxing that displayed a new and unflinching realism.


An avid fan of boxing, Bellows recorded several images of the sport throughout his career, and Stag at Sharkey’s is his most famous. Because public prizefighting was illegal in New York at the time, private events had to be
arranged in order for a match to take place. Participation in the ring was limited to members of the club, a loosely organized group of local semi-professionals. Whenever an outsider competed at the club, he was given temporary membership and known as a “stag.”  The two fighters seem equally matched, making it impossible to predict the outcome. Bellows captured the force and energy of the struggle by blurring the scene’s details with rapid brushwork. The low viewpoint places us among the crowd, so that we become a part of the spectacle.




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