12 June 2012
Last updated at 04:51
George Bellows was one of the great American realist painters of the 20th Century. His unflinching portrayal of urban life is epitomised by his paintings of the lawless violence at New York's "private" boxing clubs. "I am just painting two men trying to kill each other," Bellows once said.
"Let me say that the atmosphere around the fighters is a lot more immoral than the fighters themselves," Bellows said. The National Gallery of Art in Washington DC has just opened the first comprehensive exhibition of Bellows' work in more than three decades, showing more than 100 paintings, lithographs and drawings.
In addition to underground fights, Bellows also portrayed sanctioned professional events. The lithograph Preliminaries to the Big Bout, 1916, was inspired by the first fight at New York's storied Madison Square Garden attended by women.
Aside from the brutality of the prize fights, Bellows also sought to capture the lives of the poor on the margins of American cities, and turn of the century New York was particularly rich with subjects. Immigrant children play on a dilapidated East River dock and swim in the river's polluted waters in Forty-Two Kids (1907).
In the early 20th Century, many of New York's crowded tenements were torn down to make way for new infrastructure in the rapidly expanding city. The Lone Tenement, 1909, emphasises the displacement of the people whose homes were razed, says National Gallery of Art curator Charles Brock.
Bellows turned his eye to New York's teeming slums in Cliff Dwellers (1913).
Bellows uses portraits - a treatment normally reserved for the upper levels of society - to portray intimate accounts of ordinary people found on the streets near his studio. Paddy Flannigan's tanned face and arms contrast with his palid trunk, a hint at his social class.
In Blue Morning (1909), New York's Pennsylvania Railroad Station, still under construction, hovers in the background while Bellows focuses on the men at work. "We feel the cold, we know this feeling of getting up early in the morning," says Brock. "He creates a tremendous sense of man being overwhelmed."
Later in his career, Bellows captured America's first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, as he towered over defeated challenger James J Jeffries. The detail with which Bellows depicts the fighters' expressions reveals their humanity - a significant departure from the anonymity of the boxers in his earlier works.
By the 1920s, boxing was big business, and Bellows uses sweeps of colour to depict the atmosphere of commercial fights. Dempsey and Firpo (1924) captures the moment when Argentine Luis Ángel Firpo knocks American Jack Dempsey out of the ring. Dempsey got back up to win in the next round.
Bellows died in 1925 at 42, eight days after coming down with appendicitis. He was already acclaimed as one of America's greatest artists. "It's hard to imagine what that would have meant for American art if Bellows had lived," says Brock. "There is something paradoxical about a man so energetic... gone in eight days."