Having played basketball and baseball in college, Bellows was attracted to all kinds of sports and used them as subjects throughout his career. His early fight scenes, made over a period of little more than two years, capture the passion for boxing that prevailed about 1900, reflected also in Jack London's writings and in Theodore Roosevelt's engagement with the sport as an amateur fighter. Bellows recorded brawls at the sleazy athletic club run by the retired pugilist Tom Sharkey, located opposite his studio at Broadway and Sixty-sixth Street. Clubs such as Sharkey's evaded a 1900 ordinance outlawing public prizefighting by selling memberships—to men only—instead of charging admission. Seizing the essence of raw male aggression in his boxing pictures, inscribing their intensity in slashing brushwork, Bellows repudiated Victorian piety and provoked critical controversy. Exploring the fundamental theme of human violence through one of the most provocative subjects of his day, he created works that were at once timeless and topical. During this period Bellows also painted portraits of the city's working poor, conveying his sitters' vulnerability as well as their resilience. These frank encounters reveal Bellows's grasp of the realist portrait tradition practiced by Édouard Manet, Frans Hals, and Diego Velázquez and his circle, all of whom his teacher Robert Henri had commended to him, and whose works he studied at the Metropolitan Museum.
George Bellows (American, Columbus, Ohio 1882–1925 New York City). Stag at Sharkey's, 1909. Oil on canvas, 36 1/4 x 48 1/4 in. (92.1 x 122.6 cm). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Hinman B. Hurlbut Collection, 1133.1922
The savage energy of Stag at Sharkey's is concentrated in the two brutal boxers. Many of the grotesque patrons at ringside are flushed and thrilled to be cheering on the vicious bout. As Bellows observed in a 1910 letter to an Ohio acquaintance, "the atmosphere around the fighters is a lot more immoral than the fighters themselves." Crouched in the first row at the far side of the ring, under the referee's outstretched arm, is a figure who seems to be peering up from his sketch pad, perhaps a stand-in for Bellows himself.
George Bellows (American, Columbus, Ohio 1882–1925 New York City). Paddy Flannigan, 1908. Oil on canvas, 30 1/4 x 25 in. (76.8 x 63.5 cm). Erving and Joyce Wolf
Arriving in New York in 1904, Bellows must have been fascinated by the diversity of faces he encountered, especially in the immigrant neighborhoods of the Lower East Side—Italians, Irish, and European Jews. Like his teacher Robert Henri, Bellows painted a number of formal portraits of the children who hung out on the streets or who were forced to work as laundresses, newsboys, and street laborers at a young age before labor laws were enacted. Dramatically posed against a dark background like one of the Old Master paintings by Rembrandt, Hals, and Caravaggio that he studied at the Metropolitan Museum, Bellows captures Paddy Flannigan’s sense of impudence and survival. One art critic described him as a "pearl of the gutter."