• Christies auction house James Christie logo

    Sale 2003

    Important American Paintings, Drawings And Sculpture

    21 May 2008, New York, Rockefeller Plaza

  • Lot 52

    George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925)

    Basketball

    Price Realised  

    George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925)
    Basketball
    signed 'Geo. Bellows-' (lower right)
    Conté crayon, ink and sepia wash on paper
    13½ x 17 in. (34.3 x 43.2 cm.)
    Executed in 1906.


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    The bold athletic images of George Bellows are a major, recurring theme in his art and among his most celebrated images. Of all his subjects, Bellows excelled in his depiction of athletic events. These works embody the artist's unique talents as a passionate observer of sports and as a recorder of masculine competition. Executed in 1906, Basketball is an important early work of this genre by the artist and most likely Bellows' first drawing to focus on athletics. The artist's mastery of line, nuance and composition is at its height in this superbly finished drawing that teems with energy. Basketball presages the primal force evident in the artist's great boxing series, which he began the following year in 1907, and revisited throughout his career. Basketball is demonstrative of Bellows's depictions of sporting scenes which were among his most popular pictures in his lifetime and have remained compelling for audiences to this day.

    Bellows became interested in sports at a young age. He played basketball and baseball throughout high school and by his senior year, Bellows' skill as a shortstop had attracted the attention of professional teams. In college he played semi-professional baseball and was contacted by scouts for the Cincinnati Reds. Despite his passionate involvement in sports, Bellows' primary intent since childhood was art. During his years as an undergraduate at Ohio State, his artistry was limited to illustrations for the school yearbook. However, determined to succeed, Bellows moved to New York City to begin his education in art. In 1904, the artist left college as a junior and traveled east. He found a room at the YMCA and began a life-long immersion into the diverse life of the city. Bellows rarely painted during his first two years in New York. He lacked the skills of a painter, and before he could paint he had to learn how to draw. Bellows spent considerable time observing and sketching people throughout the city. He subsequently produced well-finished drawings that demonstrate both his keen observation skills and his immediate mastery of the principles of design and atmospheric effects.

    Basketball likely depicts a game held at the YMCA where Bellows lived in 1906 and may be his earliest sporting composition. In it two athletes wrestle for possession of a ball that is hidden from view. Based on the contortions of the intertwined bodies, the ball is within the shared grasp of their four hands. The ghoulishly gleeful expressions of the spectators heighten the drama of the seemingly primal struggle. The bodies in Basketball are elongated and angular and each figure has a unique caricatured expression in his trademark style for Bellows.

    Most notably, the composition is dramatic: as Charles H. Morgan writes, "[Bellows] was not particular about detail; it was the design and the essence of the action that mattered. When one expert pointed out that fighters never worked their hands and feet in some of the combinations he gave them, he retorted: 'I don't know anything about boxing. I am just painting two men trying to kill each other.'" (George Bellows: Painter of America, New York, 1965, p. 77) Here, Bellows strives to capture the action and conflict inherent in athletic competition. As only an athlete could, he understood the grit and determination of sport. He embraced in it the human element--the central theme of all his great compositions.

    Provenance

    Winthrop Taylor.
    Peter H. Davison & Co., Inc., New York.
    Lehman Brothers, New York.
    Mr. and Mrs. Richard Thune, New York.
    Acquired by the present owner from the above, 1994.


    Pre-Lot Text

    Property from an Important American Collection


    Literature

    The Artist's Record Book A, p. 13.
    C.H. Morgan, George Bellows: Painter of America, New York, 1965, p. 77.
    Columbus Museum of Art, George Wesley Bellows: Paintings, Drawings, and Prints, exhibition catalogue, Columbus, Ohio, 1979, p. 67, no. 56, illustrated.
    Amon Carter Museum, The Paintings of George Bellows, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1992, p. 13, fig. 4, illustrated.


    Exhibited

    Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Seventh Annual Exhibition of the Fellowship of The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1906.
    Columbus Ohio, Columbus Museum of Art, and elsewhere, George Wesley Bellows: Paintings, Drawings, and Prints, April 1-May 8, 1979, no. 56.
    Los Angeles, California, Loyola Marymount University, The Spirit of the City, February 18-April 7, 1986.