The Cleveland Museum of Art
George Bellows, American (1882-1925)
Oil on canvas
36 1/4 x48 1/4 in. (92 x 122.6 cm)
Hinman B. Hurlbut Collection
Acquired in 1922
© The Cleveland Museum of Art
The greatest period of activity and influence for the American artists known as the Ashcan School was prior to World War I. The name, taken from the ever-present urban image of the garbage can, wasn't actually coined until the 1930s. The Ashcan School first came to the public's attention as The Eight, but was soon after known by the more colorful moniker "Apostles of Ugliness."
George Bellows, the semipro baseball player-turned-artist responsible for the enduring Stag at Sharkey's, was a disciple of the Philadelphia-born artist Robert Henri (pronounced "hen-rye"). Henri, educated in art in Paris and America, led a movement that rejected French Impressionism and American painting that glorified the American West. Henri and The Eight, a group which included John Sloan and George Luks (Bellows joined the group later) sought realism in art, finding their muse and their home in New York City. At the turn of the century, the reality of urban slums became a more compelling subject for artists than the open prairie or grand Western landscape. Coming about 10 years after such writers as Mark Twain and William Dean Howells had embraced realism in literature, Henri's circle produced paintings that were dark, dirty, and reflective of life in a changing America.
Despite a short career -- he died at 43 -- Bellows was one of Ashcan's stars. Stag at Sharkey's embodies the grittiness, violence, and masculinity of the new city. 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. In Bellows's boxing match, the spectators are vulgar; their expressions indicate that they are at least as violent as the match they are watching. But the boxers themselves are reminiscent of stags in nature, still graceful while locked in combat.
Stag at Sharkey's has been part of the Cleveland Museum of Art's permanent collection since 1922, three years before Bellows's death.
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