American artist George Bellows focused on images of urban realism. A Stag at Sharkey’s, based on his 1909 oil painting, is one of the most iconic images of 20th-century American printmaking.
Bellows was a member of an artists’ group in New York City known as the Ashcan School. His first studio was located on Broadway opposite the Sharkey Athletic Club, where the law permitted members to see illegal prize fights, or “stags.” Prizefighting clubs like Sharkey’s were often condemned as sordid spaces, and this print captures that tawdry underworld. Arranged in a pyramid-like composition recalling classical sculpture, the anonymous fighters appear in an interlocking form with bold diagonal lines. The voyeuristic spectators, who are enthralled by the dramatic fight, represent a range of social types, from laborers to businessmen. Encouraging a favored fighter and reacting to and with the punches until the bout’s end, the spectators are vicarious participants in the fight. Bellows is believed to have included himself as the second spectator to the referee’s right, with just an eye and balding head peeping over the raised floor.