George Bellows turned his brand of Realism away from the cafés and fashionable leisure activities. Instead, he focused on the urban and often working class life. His unidealized attention to modern city life led critics to dub, Bellows and his contemporaries, as the Aschcan School. Their subjects included local bars, billiards games, movie houses, and sports. Bellows was noted for his sporting themes, especially boxing.
While boxing subjects made up a relatively small portion of Bellows’ print oeuvre, with only 16 lithographs, these images are among his best known. Of these, A Stag at Sharkey’s was the most iconic work by the artist. Bellows executed the subject first in 1909 as an oil painting. At the time, boxing was illegal in New York, except for private clubs. As an avid boxing fan, Bellows frequented many of these clubs, including the saloon-cum-boxing club, Sharkey’s Athletic Club. The bar was owned by a former fighter named Tom Sharkey. Sharkey frequently charged admission or “dues” to serve as a private club for fights. Sharkey’s was also located near Bellows’ studio in New York on 66th and Broadway. Bellows proximity provided frequent opportunities for the artist to attend fights and observe the working-class venue with the occasional upper class spectator. When Bellows first showed the canvas in the 1910 Independent Artists Exhibition, the work gained quick notoriety and was featured in numerous magazines.
Prior to 1916, Bellows had contributed drawings to be translated for magazine publication. However, he had not directly created a print. At the encouragement of his dealer’s spouse, Albert Sterner, Bellows agreed to try lithograph. Many of his contemporaries such as Edward Hopper, John Sloan, and Reginald Marsh were already avid printmakers, but they utilized intaglio techniques such as etching, engraving, and drypoint. Sterner suggested lithography and introduced Bellows to the master printer, George Miller.
Drawing on many of his earlier successes, he adapted subjects and often revised the images to the demands of the lithographic medium. Miller tended to richly ink these early works to create dense images with less gradation than Bellows later prints. In the lithograph of A Stag at Sharkey’s (1917), in contrast to the oil on canvas, the right of the subject has been cropped and the referee’s figure has been extended. Furthermore, the ringside audience in the foreground has been reduced and the background audience absorbed almost entirely into darkness. Even the ropes in the foreground were removed. As a result, the figures in the ring dominate the composition to a greater extent. The print becomes less about depicting the atmosphere of a fight found in the painting and more narrowly focused solely on two fighters locked in combat.