20TH CENTURY ART
George Bellows was a famous American painter in the first quarter of the twentieth century. He’s included in a group of artists called the Ashcan School. Ashcans were bins in which city folk collected the ashes from their coal fired furnaces. Not a pretty object. Painters in the Ashcan School wanted to paint American society just as boldly and honestly as an ashcan, especially the gritty street life of cities.
George Bellows was especially fascinated by New York City. But his lasting contribution to art history is a series of paintings he did of boxing matches.
Maybe the most famous is titled Dempsey and Firpo, done in 1924. Here’s how it came to be.
FIGHT ARENA AMBIENCE...NOISY CROWD
September 14, 1923, at New York City’s Polo Grounds. A newspaper, the New York Evening Journal, assigns artist George Bellows to make sketches of a heavyweight bout between champion Jack Dempsey and the challenger, Luis Angel Firpo of Argentina. Firpo was the first Latin American fighter to try and become world heavyweight champ, but no one thought he had a chance against Dempsey. The match was short and dramatic, and contained one of the most famous moments in boxing history.
Bellows sat ringside sketching, and later decided to turn one of the sketches into a painting. In the first round Dempsey knocked Firpo to the canvas seven times. But then all of a sudden Firpo landed a perfect punch to Dempsey’s chin and knocked him through the ropes and out of the ring, falling onto a table of sportswriters sitting ringside. That’s the moment that Bellows painted. As the referee began counting to ten, the sportswriters helped push Dempsey up and back into the ring. The fight continued, and in the second round Dempsey knocked out Firpo, won the fight, and remained champion.
SFX; RINGSIDE BELL
Now here’s a verbal description of the painting Dempsey and Firpo.
It’s a large oil painting, about 5 feet long and 4 feet high.
Your point of view is as if you’re sitting on one side of the ring, in the first row, your head about the height of the ring floor, so you must look up through the ring ropes to see the boxers. The ropes are very light gray, almost white, and a strip of the ring’s white canvas floor covering runs horizontally, all along the edge of the ring. These white lines stand out against the darkness of the arena in the background. You can make out the heads of the crowd on the far side of the ring, but not much else.
In front of you sit eight men, sportswriters, all along the length of the ringside. We see them from the back, from the waist up, as they twist away from or reach out to cushion the fall of Jack Dempsey. He’s frozen in mid-fall, arms and legs flailing and he tumbles backwards through the ropes and down onto the writers. We see his back as he falls. In contrast, above him in the ring stands Firpo, looking large, imposing, and indestructible, just finishing the great swing of his left arm and fist.
Also in the ring, on the right, a referee stands pointing his finger down at Dempsey, as if he has begun to count him out.
One other thing to note: at the left edge of the painting, we see the profile of a man with a bald head sitting ringside. That’s the artist, George Bellows.
Bellows’ style of painting is not realistic, like a photograph. The bodies of his people are a bit geometric in shape, and are painted with rough brushstrokes that feel energetic, full of motion and emotion. His paintings contain dark atmospheres, often relieved by bright light, like in this painting. Bright white circles of white, the lights of the arena, shine down from the upper edge of the painting on the scene in the ring.
In only 20 years, Bellows achieved a reputation that few American artists can equal. Unfortunately, seven months after finishing Dempsey and Firpo, Bellows died of complications from a ruptured appendix.
But his painting quickly became an American classic. During Word War II, the U.S. Armed Forces distributed prints of the painting to soldiers in camps and hospitals.