'Dempsey and Firpo': The Greatest American Sports Painting

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A lithograph of George Bellows's masterpiece is up for auction this week.

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If you've got about $100,000 you don't know what to do with, I can help you out. On Wednesday morning at the Swann Galleries in Manhattan, a lithograph of George Bellows's magnificent painting, "Dempsey and Firpo," will be offered in an auction of "Old Masters Through Modern Prints." (Swann estimates the bidding for the Bellows litho will be between $60,000 and $90,000; an art dealer of my acquaintance thinks the final price will be a bit higher.)

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"Dempsey and Firpo"—or "Dempsey Through the Ropes," as it was often identified in its early years—was painted over several months from the end of 1923 through 1924. It is the greatest American sports painting. I don't know that that particular distinction means much to art critics, but it meant a great deal when I first saw the work on a trip to its home, the Whitney Museum, with my father when I was 11.

Later, at a 1992 retrospective of Bellows's work, I learned that Dempsey and Firpo has been there since the museum's inauguration in 1931. "Dempsey and Firpo," read a piece in the New York Times, "has a place of honor, directly facing the main entrance." A few days later, another Times art beat writer wrote that the oil was "so placed that it attracts at once the eye of an arriving visitor."

Though it has never lost its place of honor, art critic Jamie Wood, writing on the London-based arts website Dandelion, said:

despite this continuity and centrality, the relationship of the painting to the museum is an uneasy one. The more we examine the painting's form and content in relation to the history of its exhibition and reception, the more it serves to disrupt what I have termed the Whitney narratives: the series of stories the museum wants to construct around itself.

Wood's purpose, as I understand it, is to show how the content of Bellows's work hasn't always jived with the Whitney's aims—as Wood phrase it, "the Whitney's original narrative, especially the attempt by its founders to define a genre of modern American realism ..." Bellows's paintings, particularly Dempsey and Firpo, are part of some dramatization of the return of the repressed ..." well, I urge you to read the piece, but let's suffice it to say that Bellows's depiction of the sports fan's barbaric yawp is a little funkier than most of what fills the Whitney's walls.

George Bellows did for visual art what Ring Lardner did for journalism: You got all the details and a vivid account of the action that was at the center of the narrative. You could smell the sweat and cigar smoke and feel the heat coming off the crowd.

The backstory to Dempsey and Firpo is that Jack Dempsey was the biggest star in the age of America's biggest sports heroes—Babe Ruth, Red "The Galloping Ghost" Grange, Bobby Jones. Dempsey was the biggest star of his day, from 1919, when he won the heavyweight title in a bloody victory over Jess Willard—a Kansas cowboy who outweighed him by more than 70 pounds—to 1927, when, in his last fight, he lost to Gene Tunney in an attempt to regain the title. According to the historian Frederick Lewis Allen, Americans were enraptured with the Dempsey-Tunney fights. Nearly 105,000 attended the fight at Soldier Field in Chicago (one of them was America's best-known celebrity gangster, Al Capone), while millions listened on the radio. The announcer was Graham McNamee, who was famous for his radio histrionics; in the seventh round, when Dempsey floored Tunney with a series of rights and lefts, McNamee screamed into his mic, "Tunney is down! Tunney is down!" with such fervor that listeners all over the country dropped with heart attacks.

Dempsey had been a wretchedly unpopular champion through the first years of his reign. He was a "slacker" who avoided service in World War I, years he spent working in mines and fighting bar fights for pass-the-hat. For a while, the primary interest Americans showed in him was in buying tickets to see him lose.

The fight with Luis Angel Firpo, "the Wild Bull of the Pampas," was probably the fight in which Dempsey began to win over the American public. Dempsey, who was 6-1 and seldom weighed more than 185, looked like a lightweight compared to the massive Argentinean, who was at least 6-3 and about 220. Firpo was billed as "the heavyweight Champion of South America," though, in the words of the late, great boxing historian Bert Sugar, "No one realized at the time that the toughest thing they fought down there was malaria."

The fight, which took place September 14, 1923, has been called the most savage two rounds in boxing history. You don't have to take my word for it; check out all four minutes of the action here:

I don't know how many times I've watched the fight. It still seems very much not like a fight today, with neither man showing an atom of regard for self defense and Dempsey, in full accordance with the rules of the time, standing over his fallen opponent every one of the nine times he sent Firpo to the canvas.

It also looks to me as if the blow which sent Dempsey through the ropes in Round One was more of a push than a punch. Whatever it was, boxing writers at ringside—including the legendary Paul Gallico, who insisted it was his typewriter that Dempsey landed on, causing a gash in the champ's head—lifted the champ back into the ring, where he proceeded to say with his fists, "No more Mr. Nice Guy," finally flattening Firpo for good about a minute into the second round. Some boxing purists claim to this day that Dempsey was out of the ring a full 14 seconds, but this was and is irrelevant since a 10-count in boxing has always been according to the subjective timing of the referee.

And then, in a moment of almost heartbreaking pathos, the tiger of just seconds before turned into a lamb, stopping down to help up his bloody, beaten foe as the more than 80,000 in attendance at the Polo Grounds roared their approval.

There were giants in those days, or rather that's the way working men wanted their heroes to seem. There were, of course, no televisions, and at the time it wasn't possible even to see fight films in theaters—that would come in the 1930s. The ways in which the glories of Jack Dempsey were conveyed to the public were the words of the men who saw him fight and a handful of grainy photographs in newspapers. But the only medium that could really suggest the awesomeness of what happened on that night was George Bellows's canvas.

Bellows began his painting just weeks after the fight and died of a ruptured appendix a little more than a year after he finished Dempsey and Firpo. He was from what art critic Dan Bischoff calls "the second generation of the 'Ashcan School,'" the association of realistic artists, many of whom started as newspaper illustrators in Philadelphia, first exhibited in New York as a group in 1908. Bellows was influenced by their style, but was less concerned with realism. Bellows was striving for the essence of the moment, which moved so many so deeply. I don't think he actually saw the fight. I wonder if he even saw pictures from it. As my father once pointed out to my astonishment—I had read about the fight for years and had a reprint of Bellows's painting on my wall but had never noticed this—Firpo is knocking Dempsey out of the ring with his left hand. Why the left instead of the right? Probably because Bellows thought it better drew the viewer's eye to the moment of impact.

His works on New York City street life like "River Rats" (1906) and "42 Kids" (1907) are unmatched in their portrayals of New York lower class vitality. Whoever wrote the notes for the 1992 Whitney retrospective sniffed that Bellow's works "lack the biting social critique seen in photographers by reformers ...[The paintings] are full of action and humor rather than an accurate portrayal." Yes, well, the people are so often more full of action and humor than reformers wish them to be.

"In Polo at Lakewood" (1910) and "Tennis at Newport" (1920) Bellows captured the essence of those sports and the spectators' reactions to them, and he got at something more besides: In the polo painting, the men and horses look as if they're about to shake off their gentle demeanors and return to the Mongolian origins of the sport in which the players knocked around not an ivory ball but the head of a former opponent. In his fight painting "Club Night" (1907), gentlemen in tuxes gaze at the savagery of an illegal "smoker" fight as if through raised hands; the painting is awash in dark shades, as if the vent were but a shadow in a dark corner of their lives. "Stag at Sharkey's" (1909) has a similar outline but the picture is presented in bright lights—the crowd is proletarian and unashamed.

I hope whoever is lucky enough to win the "Dempsey and Firpo" lithograph on Wednesday appreciates what they own. I don't know if "Dempsey and Firpo" is great art; I do know that it's a window into a vanished America that is still strongly felt but only dimly remembered.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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