'Dempsey and Firpo': The Greatest American Sports Painting

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


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.

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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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