• Christies auction house James Christie logo

    Sale 2058

    Important American Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture

    4 December 2008, New York, Rockefeller Plaza

  • Lot 143

    George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925)

    Hold 'Em

    Price Realised  


    George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925)
    Hold 'Em
    signed 'Geo Bellows.' (upper right)--signed again 'Bellows' (lower right)
    India ink and crayon on assembled paper
    22¼ x 21 in. (56.5 x 53.3 cm.)
    Executed in August 1912.

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    George Bellows' ink and crayon drawing Hold 'Em is an exceptionally engaging and dynamic example of his quintessential theme of the struggle and glory of American athletic competition. His exquisite draughtsmanship was largely informed by his early experiences as a graphic illustrator: "his drawings for magazines played an important role in his career. Of necessity, his illustrations were bold, simple, vivid, and lively to capture the reader's interest, and this realistic and direct style [informed his mature work]." (L. Ayres, "Bellows: The Boxing Drawings," Bellows: The Boxing Pictures, Washington, D.C., 1982, p. 50) Bellows' robust style was also influenced by Realism following his early training with Robert Henri in New York. These Ashcan artists concentrated on unsentimental, gritty aspects of everyday life, including non-traditional subjects from the urban, lower and middle classes. Lonely bar scenes, shadowy alleyways, and energetic boxing spectacles are among the difficult subjects that these artists embraced. Though Bellows was inspired by Henri and the group of Ashcan artists called--The Eight--he remained decidedly independent in his choice of athletic subject matter and his characteristic free-flowing, vigorous style.

    Football is a quintessentially American athletic pursuit and remains as much a display of masculinity and tradition today as it did in 1912. "Bellows' interest in these [football, boxing, and baseball] themes is not surprising, as he was also an athlete. He played baseball and basketball as a schoolboy and became a basketball star when he reached his height of six feet, two inches. He continued both sports at Ohio State University, playing successfully enough to be sought after by the Cincinnati Reds professional baseball team during his senior year. But Bellows rejected their offer in order to pursue a career as an artist." (E. A. Carmean, Jr., "Bellows: The Boxing Paintings," Bellows: The Boxing Pictures, Washington, D.C., 1982, p. 27) The confusion and struggle of the players is registered in their contorted bodies and the roughness of the lines, while the jumble of faces and limbs emerging from the shadows are beautifully highlighted by lighter tones. The energy and enthusiasm conveyed by the players is combined with an overall sense of dignity and honor, evoking the pursuit of glory in a nostalgic celebration of a favorite American pastime.

    The prevalence of sports photography during the 1910s suggests that Bellows might have been influenced by the photographic technique of cropping. As E. A. Carmean explains, Bellows was likely affected by "the way in which the camera cuts its image from a much larger visual field." ("Bellows: The Boxing Paintings," Bellows: The Boxing Pictures, p. 31) The method of cropping and focusing in on a specific frame from within the greater image is also evident in Bellows' use of assemblage. Several areas of the image are cut from one or more separate drawings and affixed to the present work, adding dimension and tactile interest. The upside-down face in the lower left corner was cut and applied in this manner, propelling the figure up from the paper. The players seem to spill forward uncontrollably, their intensity and movement barely contained by the borders of the image. The central figure whose arm is extended over his shoulder and whose leg reaches back to the lower right corner is reminiscent of many of Bellows' well known boxing figures and brings to mind the Borghese Gladiator (Museé du Louvre, Paris). The glory of sportsmanship and sense of movement and dynamism is made explicit by formal properties including the dramatic contrast between light and dark and the bold, gestural quality of line. The visually stunning surface texture and the variations in line quality are especially evident as a result of the crosshatching technique. Bellows builds up strong value using short, rough lines in black ink, complemented by masterful shading in black crayon. This combination of ink and crayon is further enhanced by the introduction of cut and assembled pieces. The strong diagonal movement and sense of effort and resistance in the players is tempered by the formal beauty of the medium. The scene is masterfully rendered in dramatic contours and crosshatched lines, commemorating one of the most celebrated American pastimes in a display of artistic skill and formal innovation.

    The impassioned faces of the football players are particularly characteristic of Bellows' style, combining elements of caricature with a strong sense of realism. The accuracy of detail is less important to Bellows than capturing the physical energy of the players and the spontaneity of the moment. Bellows' emphasis on emotive content instead of specific details recalls the work of Honoré Daumier, as Linda Ayres explains, "Daumier, who had vividly portrayed the common man in dramatic scenes, must have been a kindred spirit for Bellows." ("Bellows: The Boxing Drawings," Bellows: The Boxing Pictures, p. 57) Class distinction is less obvious in the present work than in other subjects within Bellows' oeuvre. The players are equals while they don their uniforms and perform on the game field. Rank and status become meaningless, supplanted by the potential for victory and the respect of fellow players. The visual ambiguity between the bodies and limbs of the players and the representation of the huddle as a single, unstoppable force echoes the spirit and camaraderie of team competition. Individual victory is secondary to the triumph of the team and the joy of competition. The sense of propulsion and the clustering and intertwining of the bodies also evokes an unbridled energy that is reminiscent of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux's haunting and enigmatic sculpture Ugolino and His Sons (1861, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Hold 'Em is a remarkably powerful example of Bellows' celebrated subject of American athleticism, representing a bold spectacle of explosive spontaneity, triumphant struggle, and formal expertise.


    The artist.
    Edward Lyell Fox.
    Mr. C. Ruxton Love, Jr., New York.
    [With]Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York.
    Robert Mann, Florida, 1971.
    [With]Berry-Hill Galleries, New York.
    Acquired by the present owner from the above, 2005.


    The artist's record book B, p. 142.
    Everybody's Magazine, vol. 47, November 1912, p. 643, illustrated.
    The Gallery of Modern Art, George Bellows Paintings, Drawings and Lithographs, New York, 1966, p. 45, no. 9.
    Hirschl & Adler Galleries, George Bellows (1882-1925), exhibition catalogue, New York, 1971, n.p., no. 17.
    Mann Galleries, George Bellows, 1882-1925, Paintings/Drawings/Lithographs, exhibition checklist, Miami, Florida, n.p., no. 6.
    B. Weber, American Paintings XII, exhibition catalogue, New York, 2005, pp. 84-85, illustrated.


    New York, The Gallery of Modern Art, The Twenties Revisited, June 29-September 6, 1965.
    New York, The Gallery of Modern Art, George Bellows Paintings, Drawings and Lithographs, March 15-May 1, 1966, no. 9.
    New York, Hirschl & Adler Galleries, George Bellows (1882-1925), May-June 1971, no. 17.
    Miami, Florida, Mann Galleries, George Bellows, 1882-1925, Paintings/Drawings/Lithographs, no. 6.
    New York, Berry-Hill Galleries, American Paintings XII, 2005.