Painted in October 1909, the remarkably expressive and dynamic Both Members of This Club is the third and largest of George Bellows’s early prizefighting subjects. The painting’s title is a reference to the practice in private athletic clubs of introducing the contestants to the audience as “both members” to circumvent the Lewis Law of 1900 that had banned public boxing matches in New York State. Boxing was a controversial subject, but the interracial theme made this painting even more so, especially since the black boxer appears to be winning the match.
It is likely that Bellows intended Both Members of This Club as an allusion to the recent and much-publicized success of the African American professional prizefighter Jack Johnson, who had won the world heavyweight championship in 1908. The idea of a black boxing champion was so unsettling to the prejudiced social order of the time that many thought interracial bouts should be outlawed. Painted at the height of the Jim Crow era, Bellows’s powerful delineation of a white fighter about to be defeated by a black opponent was an exceptionally daring and provocative piece of social commentary.