"Stag at Sharkey’s" by George Bellows, 1909

Peter Schjeldahl for the New Yorker:

At the time, boxing was illegal in New York, except in clubs, such as Tom Sharkey’s Athletic Club, whose “members” might include anyone who paid at the door. Bellows said, “I don’t know anything about boxing. I am just painting two men trying to kill each other.” In one of several fine essays in the [National Gallery in Washington, DC] show’s catalogue, the art historian David Peters Corbett relates the savagery of Bellow’s fight scenes to the contemporaneous muckraking of Upton Sinclair, who wrote of hearing, in a Chicago slaughterhouse, “the hog-squeal of the universe.” The fighters at Sharkey’s collide in no way that I’ve ever seen in the ring: each with a leg lifted far from the floor, as one man jams a forearm into the bloody face of the other, while cocking a blow to the body. Their livid flesh, radiating agony, is a marvel of colors blended in wet strokes on the canvas. The picture is at once a snapshot of Hell and an apotheosis of painting. It evinces sensitive restraint by muting the expressions of the riotous ringsiders.