Boxing Paintings: The Big Three From An Artist’s Point of View
From ancient times to the present, the visual and emotional drama that is inherent in the sport of boxing has always attracted and inspired artists. Statues, friezes, vase paintings, and murals depicting boxing scenes and boxers have been discovered in ancient Crete, Greece and Rome. Many are on display in the great museums of the world. One of the earliest known images is a stone slab relief, discovered in Baghdad, which shows two boxers with taped leather hands. It is estimated to be 5000 years old.
In more recent times important American artists have produced an impressive volume of work devoted to the sport. Three of the most famous boxing paintings of the 20th century were done by American artists. They are Dempsey and Willard by James Montgomery Flagg; Dempsey and Firpo by George Bellows, and Brown Bomber by Robert Riggs. Each of these compelling masterpieces depicts a scene from an iconic heavyweight championship contest.
Three of the most famous boxing paintings of the 20th century were done by American artists.
A great painting, like a great boxing match, can be appreciated on many different levels. There are layers and nuances to each—some obvious and some not so obvious. I can analyze a fight much easier than I can analyze a painting. So, I thought it might be interesting to seek out the expert analysis of an accomplished artist and hear what he had to say about the aforementioned paintings.
One of my dear friends is renowned artist Sol Korby. Sol is an award winning painter and illustrator. After service in World War II Sol was employed by various advertising agencies, and subsequently for most of the leading book publishers including Time Inc., Dell, Ace, Fawcett and Avon. (A sampling of Sol’s amazing creations can be viewed at: SolKorbyIllustrations.com)
Sol is ageless. At 90 years plus he is still active and productive, working in his studio almost every day. He is also familiar with boxing’s colorful history. In fact, his work includes a number of boxing subjects. I was anxious to hear what he had to say about each painting.
But first a brief history of the artists and their subjects:
“Notice how Flagg put a cloud in the sky and how he silhouetted Dempsey’s head against the white cloud to emphasize Dempsey’s importance.” –Sol Korby
Dempsey and Willard (6’ x 19’): James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960), was a popular and prolific artist best known for his World War I recruiting poster of Uncle Sam pointing to the viewer (inspired by a British recruitment poster showing Lord Kitchener in a similar pose) with the caption “I Want YOU for U.S. Army”. The Dempsey and Willard mural is 6 feet high by 19 feet wide and is by far the largest of the three paintings. It depicts heavyweight champion Jess Willard and challenger Jack Dempsey in a scene from the July 4, 1919 title fight. Dempsey was 60 pounds lighter than the 6’ 6 ½” 250 pound champion. It didn’t matter. In a savage beat down Dempsey floored Willard seven times in the opening round. The game champion withstood a terrible beating until his corner finally threw in the towel before the start of the 4th round. The electrifying “Manassa Mauler” would hold the title for the next seven years and become the greatest sports superstar of the roaring twenties.
The mural was commissioned by Jack Dempsey and completed in 1944. It was prominently displayed on the wall of his popular Broadway bar and restaurant. Although invited to participate in the celebrity packed unveiling Jess Willard declined to attend. He wired Dempsey, saying, “Sorry I can’t be there. But I saw enough of you 25 years ago to last me a lifetime.”
After the restaurant closed in 1974, Dempsey and his wife Deanna donated the painting to the Smithsonian’s National Gallery of Art in Washington D. C. where it is on permanent display.
Dempsey and Firpo (51” x 63 ¼”): George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925) was one of the most renowned artists of his generation. His previous boxing paintings and prints, numbering 46 in all, had already won him considerable fame, most notably Stag at Sharkey’s. Bellows was commissioned by the New York Evening Journal to cover the heavyweight title fight between champion Jack Dempsey and Argentina’s Luis Angel Firpo on September 23, 1923 at New York’s Polo Grounds. The fight was witnessed by 90,000 fans who contributed to boxing’s second million dollar gate.
In a wild first round Firpo was dropped seven times and Dempsey twice. The painting captures the dramatic moment when Dempsey is knocked out of the ring by Firpo. As the painting shows, he landed on reporters sitting in the first press row. Controversy erupted when it was claimed Dempsey was unfairly aided by the reporters who proceeded to push him back into the ring (in the painting one reporter’s hand is seen on Dempsey’s back).
Bellows inserted himself in the painting. He is the bald fellow seated on the extreme left. The painting is owned by the Whitney Museum of American Art.
The Brown Bomber (31” x 41”): Robert Riggs (1896-1970) was a painter, printmaker, and illustrator well known in the 1930s for his realistic images of the circus, boxing matches, hospitals and psychiatric wards. The Brown Bomber is the nickname of the great heavyweight champion Joe Louis, who held the title from 1937 to 1949 and defended it a record 25 times. The scene depicts the climactic ending to the historic championship fight between Louis and Germany’s Max Schmeling on June 22, 1938 at Yankee Stadium. Louis was seeking to avenge his knockout loss to Schmeling (the only blot on his otherwise perfect record) that had taken place two years earlier. This fight had huge political and social significance. On the eve of World War II, with Nazi Germany ascending, the world focused their attention on this fight. Louis was not just fighting for himself. To the 70,000 fans in the sold out stadium and millions more listening on radio, the fight symbolized the struggle between democracy and Nazi Germany. Joe Louis’ swift and brutal annihilation of Schmeling in the very first round made him a national hero and cemented his legendary status for all time. The painting is owned by the Taubman Museum of Art, in Roanoke, Virginia.
Of the three paintings, Dempsey and Willard is Sol Korby’s favorite: “I think most people who are interested in art would say Bellows is the best painter of the three, probably because he’s in between Flagg and Riggs. Riggs is too stylized, and Flagg is not stylized at all, and Bellows is right in the middle. Personally, I like Flagg best because his work is realistic. I do that kind of work. I like to see things the way they are in nature. When I do a painting I try to make it as close as possible to nature.
“One of the main differences between Flagg’s mural and the two paintings by Bellows and Riggs, aside from the size, is that the others have action. This painting is not really a fight picture the way you and I know a fight picture. There’s no action. There’s no blood. It’s just the two principle fighters in their typical poses. Flagg depicts the two fighters in their prime and the way they move. Willard is moving forward and he’s got one glove near his chest and the other is down near his thigh. He’s not concerned that Dempsey’s going to hit him. It shows he’s not afraid of him at all. He thinks he can beat Dempsey. It wasn’t until the first couple of punches that Willard really knew he was in for a fight now.
“On the left side of the painting you have the referee standing there. He’s not running towards them. He’s just standing there to balance out the ring post on the right side of the painting. It works as a mural because we’re talking about a painting that’s measured in feet. The other paintings are measured in inches. So you have a painting that’s 6 feet by 19 feet symbolizing their fighting styles. I think he did a fantastic job on it.
“This painting is an example of what I call a David and Goliath theme. Flagg wanted to get that big vs. little effect. You’ve got the small guy, who everybody roots for, and you’ve got the monster who everybody wants to lose. Flagg shows Dempsey at his best in that tiger crouch against this giant. He looks like he’s just about to spring up. You’ll also notice how Flagg put a cloud in the sky and how he silhouetted Dempsey’s head against the white cloud to emphasize Dempsey’s importance.
“Flagg and Dempsey knew each other very well. They traveled in the same circles. He was always in the restaurant.”
“Flagg and Dempsey knew each other very well. They traveled in the same circles. He was always in the restaurant. The end result was a very personal type of painting. Flagg put all his friends in the first row. Not only his friends, but also friends of Dempsey. He’s got different sportswriters and people they associate with, including satirist Damon Runyon, cartoonist Rube Goldberg, promoter Tex Rickard, humorist Bugs Baer and Dempsey’s trainer, Jimmy DeForrest. [note: Flagg, like Bellows, inserted himself into the painting and is seated in the first row]. That’s the intent of this picture. It’s not really a boxing picture like the others because there’s no action in it and there’s no blood and neither is being knocked down.
“Many of Flagg’s friends were in show business. Two of his best friends were comedian W.C. Fields and actor John Barrymore. He used to go out all night with them carousing and drinking and would get home very late. If they weren’t in a play or anything they had nothing else to do, so while they had a lot of time, he had work to do and, tight or not, he could knock off an entire illustration in one afternoon. That’s how fast he was.
“In his painting of Dempsey and Firpo, George Bellows did something very unique”, explains Sol. “He has Dempsey falling back and somebody in the press row with his hand on Dempsey’s back is about to push him back into the ring. Many people today are not familiar with this fight, even though they may have heard the name Jack Dempsey. Looking at the painting for the first time they might think it is Dempsey who knocked Firpo out of the ring. But the one thing that tells you Dempsey won this fight, even though you know he is knocked out of the ring, is to look at his hair. His hair is immaculate. There is not one strand out of place. The guy was knocked out of the ring and his hair didn’t move! Bellows painted it that way to show Dempsey wasn’t even hurt to begin with and, as we know, he got back into the ring and knocked out Firpo in the next round.
“Dempsey had only ten seconds to make it back into the ring before being counted out. Bellows shows the referee starting the count right away. In this way he draws attention to the controversy about whether Dempsey could have gotten back into the ring in time without the help of the people who pushed him back.
“You’ll also notice that at the top of the painting there are lights above the ring and two more lights in the far reaches of the stadium. Bellows didn’t want all that area dark. He wanted to show there was space and distance and he wanted to show where the lighting on both figures is coming from and it works very well. And he has nice little figures in the back all cheering and raising their hands and hats and all those things going on in the ringside to show that everyone is excited about what’s happening.
“Robert Riggs’ painting, The Brown Bomber, takes a little explaining, because this is a violent picture. It is the aftermath of violence. This is really an amazing picture in terms of its composition. Starting with the referee’s outstretched arms, and going clockwise past Louis’s back we see the towel flying into the ring and then the guy who threw in the towel, and then we see the heads and the shoulders of all the people sitting at ringside, which brings us right back to the referee. In other words, it makes a complete oval.
“The title is The Brown Bomber but this painting is not about Joe Louis. This painting is about Max Schmeling!”
“Just off center in the oval, on all fours, is Schmeling. He’s out, completely finished, and Louis is standing over him. If he ever attempts to get up he’s going to be smashed down again. The title is The Brown Bomber but this painting is not about Joe Louis. This painting is about Max Schmeling! The whole thing is about Max Schmeling. He’s in the oval and he’s groping to get up. His head is turned because he wants to see where Louis is and he can’t do anything about it. Look at the people at ringside. They are all looking at him. They are not looking at Louis. Nobody is looking at Louis, including the referee, who is about to stop the fight. This painting is about Max Schmeling. Joe Louis is one of the figures that complete the arc. He’s part of it, but he’s not the main figure in the painting—Schmeling is.
“This is the most violent of the three paintings. Dempsey being knocked out of the ring didn’t hurt him, didn’t bother him. But this one, Schmeling is in agony and there’s no getting away from it.
“Each of these artists had different styles. Flagg paints in a more true to life style. Bellows and Riggs are more stylized and you can see it in everything they do, especially in the heads and figures around the ring and the shapes of the fighters’ bodies. Everything is stylized. But that is the property of the artist. They feel they’re enhancing the subject. An example is Louis’ arm. Riggs paints him with more muscles than Louis ever had. But he wanted that. It shows that Louis had the strength to do what he did, to put Schmeling on all fours on the canvas. He also made Schmeling’s muscles prominent to show he wasn’t just a tomato can. He was a good fighter. He was champion at one time. Louis is not beating some club fighter—this was a champion.”
There you have it, an artist’s take on three magnificent boxing paintings. Sol asked me which one I liked best. Well, here it is almost two weeks later, and I am still trying to decide. All three are so unique and spectacular in their own way. At this point it’s a dead heat. Which one is your favorite?