George Bellows's Stag at Sharkey's
Boxing, Violence, and Male Identity
ROBERT E. HAYWOOD
In this provocative essay, Robert Haywood considers the boxing paintings of George Bellows in the context of American attitudes toward sports and masculinity in the early twentieth century. As a young artist in New York, Bellows resided first at the YMCA and later in close proximity to Sharkey's Athletic Club, institutions that provided vastly different experiences of male athletic activity. Based on Bellows's own experience and popular beliefs of the time, Haywood draws an important distinction between the illegal prizefight represented in this painting and pugilism as a legitimate sport practiced within the respectable environment of the YMCA, where participation in sports was thought to build character and strengthen the body.
Stag at Sharkey's captures the illicit excitement of the prizefight from the standpoint of the spectator- voyeur who enters this decadent world in search of danger and excitement. Haywood understands boxing as a complex enactment of power and aggression, where the male body becomes a site encoded with signs of not only physical strength but also sexual potency. The evident fascination with the spectacle of violence captured by Bellows is connected both to conflicted notions of masculine identity at the turn of the century and to the homoerotic implications of boxing itself as a ritual of desire coupled with physical brutality.
When George Bellows left Columbus, Ohio, in 1904 and began his education at the New York School of Art, he chose the Young Men's Christian Association on Broadway and West Fifty- Seventh as his new home. The twenty-two-year- old had pursued both arts and athletics in his hometown, and at the YMCA he could participate in sports during his free time. Bellows's parents approved of this housing--the YMCA was known for its clean and wholesome environment; it was an institution that linked exercise to morality and manliness.
During this era, one YMCA official posited that the correct use of sports could play a large role in a boy's character development. If young men were properly supervised, he believed, they would avoid frequenting gambling halls and pool rooms, and they would be less inclined toward using profanity and drinking alcohol. 1 The YMCA stressed that a healthy body housed a healthy mind, that a well-developed physique was evidence of alertness and strength.
For those desiring a firmer form, the YMCA offered facilities and instruction in physical improvement. Bellows satirized this physical fitness concern among white-collar men in a 1916