Picturing boxing: art as animus
What do famous boxing pictures want to say about the sport?
There are pictures and there are words. In the U.S. most words about sports concern the big four: football, basketball, baseball, and hockey. The most familiar images also come from those sports. Baseball and football both have huge television and stadium audiences. In March, basketball is everywhere. But football is king. In the U.S., 22 of the top 30 television audiences (1978-2023) were Super Bowl Sundays. None were World Series games.
Only one of the 30 events on the list was a boxing match, and that was the 1978 fight between Muhammad Ali and Leon Spinks, which Ali won by unanimous decision. That was also the only individual sport to make the list, which goes back 50 years.
Although boxing is one of the most written-about sports (in books especially), it receives less newspaper and television attention than track, tennis, skating, and gymnastics. Thin media coverage means that boxing art has special weight. In fact, boxing art has always played a key role in shaping public ideas of the sport, as we see in Kasia Body’s richly illustrated Boxing: A Cultural History. Most people never see boxing matches. Their ideas about boxing are drawn from newspapers and magazines, paintings, and posters.
What does art have to say about boxing? There is a short but superb analysis of boxing art by Christopher Bedford, art historian and director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in Boxed: A Visual History and the Art of Boxing, edited by Carlos Rolon (known professionally as Dzine). “From a Distance,” Bedford’s one-page contribution, highlights the gap between boxing and the images in this book.
Bedford points out that other media, print especially, have long celebrated boxing, with its “macho heroes and romance (homosocial and otherwise) in and around the ring.” Literary giants who have written about boxing include George Bernard Shaw, Philip Roth, John Steinbeck, and many more (works by these and other authors are reviewed at Allenjfrantzen.com). Art, however, “has abided by an altogether different orthodoxy when it comes to boxing.” Bedford continues:
“Race, class, corruption, commerce and exploitation in various guises (and often in combination), are the prevalent critical themes. One is not supposed to enjoy boxing as it is depicted in art, to behold the spectacle of the good fight in bloodthirsty reverie, or gaze in the grip of admiration at a boxer’s intellect and prowess. Rather, one is supposed to frown, to look askance at the brutality of the spectacle, the exploitation of fighters at the hands of their promoters and managers, and to take careful note of the relationship between the boxing game and racial minorities, class inequity, lack of education, and absence of privilege.” (p. 7)
Bedford believes that photography is more generous to boxing than is art. Photography offers a focus on the “romantic toil of training, the warmth of male camaraderie, the ragged glory of the aging, overused gym.” He suggests that photographs, no matter how candid, are easier to romanticize than art in other form. I agree. I find that much boxing art telegraphs its thesis (boxing as pain, suffering, chaos, brutality) and preaches. Boxing photographs, however, are nuanced. They say many things. They cannot be taken in with a glance.
Bedford notes that some of the art in Rolon’s collection illustrates the orthodox approach and mount “a wordless indictment of the sport” (p. 7). However, for Bedford, art that takes a heroic view of boxing and art that is critical of it are equally distant from boxing itself. Boxing and boxers stand together, he writes, while fans, “artist-critics,” and “intellectual partisans” are on the other side of the divide.
As a writer and boxing student, I have a foot on both sides of this divide. When you have boxed for a while—sparred, I mean, not hit the heavy bags—you start to see boxing art with new eyes. You view that art in the context of your own experience and may find that the art misses a lot about fighting, its speed especially. Boxing is like racing. Winning and losing are seconds apart, and sudden reversals are common. Boxing changes from second to second, whereas art, after all, once created and published, cannot change.
Boxing means more to boxers than it does to critics or intellectuals who have never sparred. Boxers know that boxing is never just a moment. For me, the most successful boxing art captures tension and suspense, not a memorable moment. The art I respond to communicates the sense that something is happening but also that something else will happen soon.
To get a general idea of boxing art as a field, search a comprehensive site like Art.com. You will quickly see how much boxing owes to Ali (my boxing gym has two posters of him). There are few images of other boxers at the site, even the greatest among them. Scattered among the ubiquitous photographs of Ali are a few paintings, including those by two artists from a century ago: Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) and George Bellows (1882-1925). Their boxing art, which I discuss in Boxing and Masculinity (2022), expresses contrasting ideas about the sport that still resonate, and I use them here to highlight the difference between boxing as a moment and boxing as a process. (Please see note on illustrations at the end.)
Eakins was a Philadelphia artist who painted classically-proportioned boxers in refined but minimal attire. Men outside the ring, wearing jackets and ties, watch the boxers. His most famous boxing work is Salutat (“hailed”), with a victorious boxer facing the crowd, his back to us. The Latin title is an invitation to connect Eakins’s work to nineteenth-century thinking about sport, still alive today, which is that athletics builds character and can keep young men from falling into bad ways. In the nineteenth century this thinking was associated with “muscular Christianity” (I discuss these ideas in Bloody Good: Chivalry, Sacrifice, and the Great War).
Eakins’s boxing art expresses a moment—a glove raised in triumph, a boxer seated between rounds, being fanned by a towel—not a fight in progress. His young boxers look serious, disciplined, and healthy—like young men you’d hire to shovel your snow or cut your grass. Or maybe not.
Henry Adams has pointed out that Eakins’s boxing paintings emphasize how men gaze at other men’s bodies. In Salutat the winning boxer’s buttocks are “bulging” (as Adams says) in thin, tight shorts. The waterboy walking behind him is “staring at [the buttocks] intently” (p. 361). Taking the Count includes a standing boxer in the ring. Positioned in the background, directly under the boxer’s crotch and visible between his legs, is a self-portrait of Eakins, sitting at ringside (p. 359). In a study for this work, the boxer who is about to get up stares directly at the genitals of the standing boxer; both are naked (p. 390).
This is not the gay commentary it might seem to be. It is, rather, art as revenge. Eakins, a student of the body, was booted from the Philadelphia Academy for exposing a male model’s genitals to his art class (Adams, p. 360). These works are on the edge, to be sure, but not the edge of boxing. It is the young, muscled, bare male body, thinly clothed, that draws the eye. Eakins portrayed many male athletes and left many nude studies.
For contrast, there is Bellows, who lived in New York and who is highly regarded today because he was avant-garde. An urban realist, he is identified with the so-called Ashcan School (an informal group named after his drawing, “Disappointments of the Ash Can,” which shows the poor searching for food (see below; “Deys woims in it,” one man says). Bellows was an anti-idealist who found mundane activities worthy of representation (“art for life’s sake,” someone has said). His favorite topics included crowded urban tenements and pollution, although his work ranges more broadly.
Boxing, of course, was right up his alley, and his boxing art has generated more commentary than any other art in this field. Boxing was on the edge in Bellows’s time, outlawed in New York (and elsewhere). In the early 1900s, it could be seen only in private clubs.
In his early boxing paintings and sketches (1907-1909), Bellows took a predictably gritty view. He painted towering, nearly-naked men, sometimes shedding blood and always surrounded by crowds that look as rough as the boxers. Bellows captured the candid brutality of boxing. He expressed public disapproval of the sport and reinforced the view of boxing as dark violence. His last boxing painting, done in 1924, is the one we know the best. Dempsey and Firpo exemplifies Bellows’s later style, with photographic realism that seems journalistic.
Here I comment on the first two paintings in the National Gallery publication (link above). Both Members of This Club (1909; reproduced from the NGA volume cover, above) shows a bleeding white boxer (note the red on his face) and black boxer with his knee aimed squarely at his opponent’s groin. Dempsey and Firpo shows the Argentine Louis Firpo knocking Jack Dempsey out of the ring.
In both works you will notice that Bellows’s bystanders are not gazing, “intently” or otherwise, at the boxers’ bodies. They are, rather, rapt with suspense, watching fast-moving action; a few of them are plainly enjoying it. Both Members does more to judge the audience than the boxers, who are anonymous, their faces obscured while those of some onlookers, albeit skewed and distorted, are all too legible. Most of this painting is black, its space sliced by two thick ropes that run along the boxers’ groins. The black boxer’s body is difficult for the viewer to construct, most of his head his trunks and much of his right upper leg disappearing into the background. What has just happened here? What will happen next? That’s what the bystanders seem to be thinking. Equally grim is Stag at Sharkey’s, from the same period (see below, taken from the cover of my book); again, the face of the boxer on the left is bloody.
With Dempsey and Firpo we enter a world of light. Bellows was at the fight in 1923; he captured a sensational moment that leaves the next moment to the imagination (Dempsey got back into the ring, with help). The painting was based on a sketch the artist did for the New York Evening Journal, a newspaper owned by William Randolph Hearst that was famous for using color comic strips and for using sensational articles to gain circulation. A strike prevented the sketch from appearing (Adams, p. 263). The painting is bright with strong overhead light; the shady boxing club is gone, along with its seedy denizens. Two pairs of bright lights, center and left, seem like ghostly eyes. The referee wears a tie and one observer wears a tuxedo.
Firpo’s body creates the painting’s architecture. His form is sensational, trim, twisted to his right by his left punch. His stance is improbably wide but supports the monumental effect of his body. Dempsey’s body is also out of scale, his lifted left arm nearly as long as his left leg. The immediate effect of these long lines—to make the image larger than life—is what matters. The bystanders, members of the press, share a single reaction, which is amazement; one has his hand braced against the boxer’s back.
Lots is happening besides Dempsey’s tumble. The referee seems to have begun the count even as Dempsey falls. Firpo stares contemptuously, it seems to me, at Dempsey. Like Bellows’s other boxing works, this painting captures a process, not just a central moment. The viewer’s focus shifts from Firpo to Dempsey to the referee, all three sharing the high value of the white canvas that runs from edge to edge and ends, on the left, with what is believed to be Bellows’s self-portrait, the only face that does not seem to express some emotion or surprise.
The usual dynamic between words and pictures is that the latter say more than the former. But what do pictures say? In comparing boxing works by these two men, I find that Eakins’ boxing art has less to say and requires fewer explanatory words. Apart from the idiosyncratic focus on buttocks and crotches, there is little drama about boxing. These draw attention for other reasons. For example, the painter had friends sit for portraits of those sitting at ringside, so the pictures tell a story about the artist. It is not, however, a boxing story.
The drama we see in Eakins’s boxing art is quiet, almost domestic. The male body in its muscled glory is something wonderful—but apparently not to be enjoyed furtively. For this artist, genitals and buttocks are the heart of boxing theater. His work is about seeing, not being seen. Eakins gives us moments that could have been drawn from any individual sport with the clothing styles of ancient athletes, who often competed nude (track, gymnastics, wrestling). Boxing itself is not at the center.
Eakins’s boxing paintings say one thing about the sport, which is that it was an opportunity for men to look at other men in a familiar and homosocial atmosphere not unlike that of a locker room. Those who write about sexuality in the locker room often point out that it is straight men, not gay men, who pay the most attention to other men’s sexual equipment. Straight men want to be around men with generous equipment and routinely size each other up this way (Cyd Zeigler, Fair Play, p. 67). Eakins emphasizes men’s curiosity about what is under the clothes of other men.
Bellows’s work requires many more words because it is never completely clear what his boxing art is saying. One reason is his technique. The broad, thick strokes that define limbs and muscles, even faces, seem to communicate haste and speed, as if we were seeing a blur of action, not, as in Eakins, detailed physiognomy. Balancing this energy are powerful abstract shapes—diagonal lines, x-forms—that anchor and fix the action. We apprehend artifice meeting art.
Bellows worked to portray boxers in their glory. Martial glory is never pristine. Part of the power of these works derives from their scale. The figures look large, as if we were ringside, looking up at them, close to the action and to the blood and sweat. This boxing art is as exciting as boxing itself. Like Eakins, Bellows emphasized the nakedness of the boxers and the vulnerability of their genitals. In Eakins’s work the nakedness is isolated from the violence of boxing, almost delicately, so that it can be gazed at without risk. In Bellows’s work the vulnerability and anatomical frankness are part of violent contest. In his work the whole man goes to war. He’s not thinking about the other man’s penis.
Bellows offers what, according to Bedford, we so seldom find in boxing art, chiefly “the spectacle of the good fight in bloodthirsty reverie.” We also “gaze in the grip of admiration at a boxer’s intellect and prowess,” or at least at his prowess. The “Ashcan School” focused on the mundane, but there is nothing mundane in Bellows’s boxing art. He succeeded in capturing the violent heroism of fights. Bedford separates the critical mode from the heroic mode and finds them equally distant from boxing. Bellows’s boxing art both expresses criticism of boxing and views it heroically. That is one reason why we need more words to talk about Bellows than about Eakins.
Another is that Bellows does what few artists of boxing do. “One is not supposed to enjoy boxing as it is depicted in art,” Bedford writes in Boxed. But if you are a boxer, you will enjoy Bellows’s boxing pictures. You can see that his work is a little rough and a little wild, but then so is boxing. You know that boxing can be dangerous and that people stay away from it. But if you box, you’re a man who enjoys risks, tests, challenges, and, yes, fights. When I look at the sluggers going at it in Bellows’s pictures, I see men who are doing what they were born to do—to go to war. They are on the inside, looking out. That’s where boxers are.
Note on Illustrations
Bellows’s major boxing works are reproduced in Boxing and Masculinity, which is available for $3.99 on Amazon (e-book); the print book is also available there. This post reproduces “Both Members of This Club” using the cover of the National Gallery publication (URL below). “Dempsey and Firpo” is reproduced from the cover of Charles H. Morgan’s George Bellows: Painter of America.
Most of Bellows’s boxing art is found in Bellows: The Boxing Pictures, from the National Gallery of Art (free PDF). To get it, go to
https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/research/publications/pdfs/bellows-the-boxing-pictures.pdf. The essays in the book are uniformly good, a real George Bellows primer.
Many of Eakins’s boxing works are also reproduced in the NGA volume. A Google search for “Eakins boxing paintings” will produce more.