ART CRITICS would eventually shower George Bellows with adjectives that might have been used to describe him playing baseball and basketball during his youth in late-19th-century Columbus, Ohio: talented, versatile, productive, unflinching.
As a child who liked to draw, Bellows had felt alienated from his peers, but that began to evaporate over the summer of 1892 when regulars at the sandlot at the end of his street let George, then 10, keep score and write accounts of their baseball games. He soon became general manager of the team, and by 15 he had taken up residency as its shortstop. The Indianapolis Hoosiers of the Western Association tried to sign him out of high school, but he enrolled at Ohio State (photo, above), where he starred for the basketball team and earned baseball letters as a sophomore and junior. Then, in 1904, he dropped out, spurning the interest of the Cincinnati Reds to enroll at the New York School of Art.
The young man who arrived in Manhattan was 6'2", with a baritone voice and an ambling grace. The vitality with which Bellows would work, play and engage in the debates swirling around his craft during two decades at the center of the New York art scene spoke to his beginnings as an athlete. "We discussed everything from Ty Cobb to El Greco," recalled fellow painter Eugene Speicher.
Semipro wages of $5 to $10 a game from a baseball team, the Brooklyn Howards, and a basketball club, the New York Colonials, helped relieve the young artist's penury. Yet in team pictures Bellows is often at the periphery; even as a participant, he seemed to seek the vantage point of the observer. He would find creative force in that transactional space between fan and athlete.
Bellows himself negotiated that passage in part because of an accident of Manhattan geography. Close to his studio at 65th and Broadway, former pro boxer "Sailor" Tom Sharkey staged bouts in the back room of his saloon. Public boxing was then permitted only in "private clubs" like Sharkey's, which required everyone to become a member, if only for the evening. Here was the sport stripped bare: weight classes be damned, doctors rarely at ringside and referees disinclined to step in until the audience's bloodlust had been sated.
On June 10, George Bellows, the first comprehensive retrospective of his work in 30 years, opens at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., with further stops at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in the fall and London's Royal Academy of Arts next spring. "These are the greatest sporting images in American art," curator Charles Brock says of Bellows's boxing work, which includes six oils and scores of lithographs and drawings. "Bellows is an intensely serious and ambitious artist speaking to the entire history of art. His work can appeal on a popular level but aspires to the highest place in the culture."