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Dempsey and Firpo

George Bellows’ piece titled Dempsey and Firpo represents the fight on the century in the nineteenth hundred between an American heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey and his Argentine rival Luis Angel Firpo. This piece was made in 1924 as Bellows sat ringside sketching, and later deciding to turn one of the sketches into a painting (Art Beyond Sight). He captures the moment when Dempsey, the boxing athlete in white shorts, was knocked out the boxing ring by Firpo, who stands bold in the ring in purple shorts. Dempsey was the eventual the victorious of the match, but the artist chose to represent the dramatic moment when Firpo knocked his opponent out of the ring with a tremendous blow to the jaw.

From the bottom of the art upwards, the point of view allows the person looking at the painting to feel as if they are sitting on one side of the ring, in the first row, with their head about the height of the ring floor. It art enforces the viewer to look up through the ring ropes to see the boxers. The ropes are very light gray, almost white, and a strip of the ring’s white canvas floor covering runs horizontally, all along the edge of the ring. Dempsey and Firpo being athletes, Bellows details their bodies in fine detail. Their curvaceous bodies which shows how muscular they are from head to toe.

Large arms and thick thighs from both shows not only how beefed they are, but giants they could be when they step in the ring. Top of the page we see these white lines stand out against the darkness of the arena in the background. Looking further into the art they are spectators roaring with their hands raise in excitement of the knock-on Dempsey. They too are so caught up in the moment that they could not be dragged away In front of you sit eight men, sportswriters, all along the length of the ringside. We see them from the back, from the waist up, as they twist away from or reach out to cushion the fall of Jack Dempsey. He’s frozen in mid-fall, arms and legs flailing and he tumbles backwards through the ropes and down onto the writers. We see his back as he falls. In contrast, above him in the ring stands Firpo, looking large, imposing, and indestructible, just finishing the great swing of his left arm and fist.

At the match, Bellows portrays himself as one of the journalist and he is the balding man at the extreme left of the picture. His geometrically structured composition also creates a low vantage point that includes the viewer: looking up at this angle, we find ourselves among the spectators pushing Dempsey back into the ring. The excitement is further heightened by the chromatic contrast between the fighters bathed in lurid light, and the dark, smoke-filled atmosphere around them. In the ring, on the right, a referee stands pointing his finger down at Dempsey, as if he has begun to count him out. His painting of Dempsey and Firpo captures that pivotal moment in the fight when both men are struggling so hard to win and neither yet has the upper hand. George Bellows captures the essence of the sport in this painting by painting men who act like they have no other thoughts on their mind at the moment but to survive. The tension in the bodies of the two boxers is dramatic and stylized: we can almost feel them straining against one another. The audience has an eerie quality to it.

Bellows’ style of painting is not realistic, like a photograph. The bodies of his people are a bit geometric in shape, and are painted with rough brushstrokes that feel energetic, full of motion and emotion. His paintings contain dark atmospheres, often relieved by bright light, like in this painting. Bright white circles of white, the lights of the arena, shine down from the upper edge of the painting on the scene in the ring.

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