Orchid Mae Letter 2 - Pugilists and Painters


Right-hand Cross-counter, pg 144 Fencing, Boxing, Wrestling, 1890. Longmans, Green. Courtesy of archive.org.

Contestants for the World Championship, July 4, 1910. San Francisco Chronicle 1910. LOC

In the 19th century in the United States, for the influential, boxing was seen as a barbaric sport of the lower classes, associated with drunkenness and rowdiness. The fact that it was a sport loved by the nobility of the English was a mark against it. Despite these challenges, boxing continued to gain popularity, particularly among working-class communities. Immigrants in particular, embraced the sport as a means of asserting their identity and social status in the rapidly changing landscape of industrial America. Boxing matches became a form of entertainment and a source of community bonding, with local heroes emerging in neighborhoods across the country. In fact, the first American, World Heavyweight Champion was an Irish immigrant named John L. Sullivan who took that title in 1889. From then followed nearly a century of Americans holding the World Heavyweight Champion title and the rise in popularity of boxing. 

Though the popularity of boxing was rising, the legality of the sport and its legitimacy was being fought in the halls of state legislatures. For example, in 1900 New York passed the Lewis Law, which outlawed all prizefighting and boxing matches unless they were done on private property between two individuals who belonged to the same private athletic club. Thus, trying to erase the ability of the lower classes to engage in the sport. This pushed matches to be held in southern and more western states where boxing was less regulated. 

Not only was boxing an arena for lower class and immigrants to elevate themselves, but it was a place for Black Americans to do the same and receive public recognition for their abilities. One such individual who was able to do this was John (“Jack”) Arthur Johnson. Johnson became the World Colored Heavyweight Champion in 1903. He defended and held this title 12 times. 

Despite having fought and beat many white fighters through his career, Jack Johnson’s road to gain the title of World Heavyweight Champion was rough. In 1905 he challenged the then World Heavyweight Champ James Jeffries, but Jeffries refused to fight Johnson and then retired that same year undefeated. In 1908 Johnson finally won the World Heavyweight title, beating the reigning champ Tommy Burns. Burns agreed to the match after Johnson kept challenging him to a match in the media for two years and fight promoters promised to pay him $30,000. 

Johnson’s win angered many white boxing enthusiasts, claiming the Black American was unfit to hold the title purely because they believed his race was inferior. Many fans still believed James Jeffries to be the true champ because he was still undefeated. In 1910, Jeffries came out of retirement to challenge Jeffries for the title. His purpose was to prove the superiority of white men. Despite the rising racial tensions and the threat of violence, Johnson accepted the challenge and the two met for the fight on July 4, 1910 in Reno, Nevada. 

After 15 rounds, where Johnson had knocked Jeffries down twice, Jeffries “threw in the towel” to end the fight. The results of the match incited race riots throughout the country that night; Whites in anger and Blacks in elation. 

This was a formative period in the history of boxing in the United States. From its rough-and-tumble origins to its transformation into a regulated and respected sport, boxing evolved alongside American society, reflecting its struggles and aspirations.

Art Nouveau and Gustav Klimt 

The Lady in Gold or portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer by Gustav Klimt, 1907, The York Project (2002) Neue Galerie New York

The Kiss, Gustav Klimt, 1907-1908, oil on canvas. Belvedere Gallery 

Photograph of Gustav Klimt, 1914, by Josef Anton Trčka. Public Domain 

Art Nouveau, an art movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is characterized by its use of organic forms, intricate details, graceful curves, and ornamental styling. Originating in Europe, particularly in France and Belgium, Art Nouveau sought to break away from the rigidity of academic art, embracing nature's flowing lines and harmonious curves. Art Nouveau, meaning “new art”, was a purposeful intent to create a new definition of art where both the fine art of painting and sculpture and the so-called “lesser” decorative arts such as illustration, architecture, interior design, no longer lived in a hierarchy of aesthetic. 

One artist who exemplified this style and period of art was Gustav Klimt. Klimt, born in 1862 in Austria, started his study of art at the age of 14 in Vienna in 1876, studying architectural painting and readily embraced the traditional artistic methods and principles. Klimt began his professional career helping to paint murals and ceilings in public buildings. Sadly, in 1892 Klimt’s father and brother both passed away which left both his father’s and brother’s families in his care financially. This great loss and added responsibility started a change in his art that led to a new personal style which broke with his traditional mural painting and embraced the more unconventional. 

His pieces displayed a mystical quality, often delving into themes of love, desire, and the human psyche. Klimt's distinctive style incorporated Byzantine mosaics, Japanese prints, and Egyptian motifs, resulting in a unique fusion of cultures and aesthetics. Klimt's fascination with the female form is evident in many of his works, where women are depicted with an ethereal beauty, often adorned with intricate jewelry and flowing garments. His portraits exude sensuality and mystery, inviting viewers into a world of opulence and allure.

One of Klimt's most iconic works, "The Kiss," epitomizes the essence of Art Nouveau. The painting, with its shimmering gold leaf and intricate patterns, captures an intimate moment between a man and a woman, enveloped in a swirling sea of golden hues. The intricate details, from the delicate tendrils of the woman's hair to the ornate patterns adorning their robes, showcase Klimt's mastery of decorative art.

Beyond his mastery of painting, Klimt's influence extended to other art forms, including architecture and design. His collaboration with other artists and architects in the Vienna Secession movement further solidified his legacy as a pioneer of modernism. Gustav Klimt's contribution to Art Nouveau is immeasurable. Through his evocative paintings and groundbreaking designs, he not only captured the spirit of an era but also left an indelible mark on the course of art history, inspiring generations of artists to come.

Learn the Words, People, and Expressions:  

Musone: Italian for someone who sulks, complains; a curmudgeon 

Rear hook: a boxing move where you punch in a hook motion using your back or dominant hand

The Black Hand: extortion rackets run by Sicilian and Italian gangsters in large cities in the US from 1890-1920 

The Bloody Gennas: The Genna crime family was a Chicago criminal organization of six Sicilian brothers who got their start running extortion schemes

The Patch: an area in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood. Located in the southern portion of this neighborhood between Chicago Ave on the north and Kinzie St. on the south. The area was settled by Sicilian/Italian immigrants and was where The Black Hand started in 1890. 

Marshalls: Marshall Field’s was an upscale department store in Chicago on State Street, later in 2006 becoming one of Macy’s flagship stores