George Bellows

Dempsey and Firpo
1924

On view
Floor 7

Dempsey and Firpo, one of George Bellows’s most ambitious paintings, captures a pivotal moment in the September 14, 1923 prizefight between American heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey and his Argentine rival Luis Angel Firpo. The frenzy lasted less than four minutes, Firpo going to the floor nine times and Dempsey twice. Although Dempsey was the eventual victor, the artist chose to represent the dramatic moment when Firpo knocked his opponent out of the ring with a tremendous blow to the jaw. At the match on assignment for the New York Evening Journal, Bellows portrays himself as a 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.

Artist
George Bellows

Title
Dempsey and Firpo

Date
1924

Classification
Paintings

Medium
Oil on canvas

Dimensions
Overall: 51 1/8 × 63 1/4 in. (129.9 × 160.7 cm)

Accession number
31.95

Credit line
Purchase, with funds from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney


Audio

  • Human Interest, Kids

    George Bellows, Dempsey and Firpo, 1924

    George Bellows, Dempsey and Firpo, 1924

    0:00

    Melanie Adsit: So this is a portrait of lots of people that shows a frozen moment in time. What's happening in this painting?

    Student: What's happening in this painting is that there are two boxers, one of them has knocked the other wrestler out, and the one that got knocked out is falling into the crowd, and the crowd is going wild.

    Student: The crowd is backing up. Their mouths are open, and they’re not going to be having their mouths open without any sound. It's obvious that they're yelping, screaming, roaring.

    Melanie Adsit: Great, you guys. This is a painting made by George Bellows in 1924 of a very famous fight between Jack Dempsey, who was the heavyweight champion of the world, and Luis Firpo, who was his rival from Argentina. We see Dempsey in the white shorts and Firpo in the purple shorts. In the first round, Dempsey knocked Firpo down seven times, but then, Firpo landed a punch right on Dempsey's chin and knocked him out of the ring. How does that change the way that you think about this painting?

    Student: This shows that some people never quit, even if their challenge is really hard and they get beat. But if you keep trying, you can throw in one little thing that can change the whole time.

    Melanie Adsit: At the end of the fight, though, after this moment, Dempsey got back in the ring, and ultimately Dempsey won the fight. So even though he got knocked out, he came back and beat Firpo in the end.

  • America Is Hard to See

    George Bellows, Dempsey and Firpo, 1924

    George Bellows, Dempsey and Firpo, 1924

    0:00

    Narrator: In 1923, artist George Bellows’ attended a boxing match on assignment for the New York Evening Journal. He made several drawings, on which this painting is based. The late writer George Plimpton described the painting.

    George Plimpton: It shows Firpo, the Argentinean boxer--quite untutored, almost an amateur—in what is considered one of the most dramatic moments in fistic history namely knocking the champion, Jack Dempsey, through the ropes. Dempsey was destroying Firpo when Firpo hit him with this left, as you can see and knocked him through the ropes. Dempsey was a killer. He was referred to as the Manassa Mauler. and simply destroyed people in the ring with him. It's the sort of painting that I think photography really does it now. 

    It's overdramatic, this picture Dempsey was not a popular champion at all. He was famous for hitting low blows, hitting fighters when they were rising from the canvas. On this particular fight in the Polo Grounds everybody's sitting there—Babe Ruth, all these people, dignitaries. Great courses of booze. And I think they really wanted Firpo, this great amateur, to take him out. He was that unpopular, Dempsey was. Somewhat romanticized here, in Bellows' painting. Firpo looking like sort of a great god, looking indestructible tree-like limbs there, legs. And Dempsey of course looked like a beetle falling out of a tree here. But that wasn't the way it turned out, at all.

    Narrator: The fight lasted only four minutes—and Dempsey was declared the winner. But the moment that became boxing legend was the one commemorated in this painting, when Firpo knocked Dempsey out of the ring.

     



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