The Artist/Athlete George Bellows, Tennis, and Gustavus

The following text was written collaboratively by Steve Wilkinson, nationally recognized and honored as long-time coach of the highly successful men’s tennis program at Gustavus Adolphus College, and Donald Myers, Director, Hillstrom Museum of Art. It was produced as part of a recurring exhibit program of the Hillstrom Museum of Art titled FOCUS IN/ON, in which individual works in the Hillstrom Collection are explored in depth in a collaborative process that engages the expertise of College community members across the curriculum and co-curriculum. The text was featured in the Museum’s exhibition Selections from the Hillstrom Collection, on view from September 8 through November 9, 2008, in which was displayed a 1916 drawing by the great American artist George Bellows (1882-1925) titled Tennis Match (Camden, Maine), a gift to the Museum from Reverend Richard L. Hillstrom in 2003. This work, which depicts a tennis game played by Bellows, his wife Emma, and their friend, painter Leon Kroll (1884-1974), was the impetus for the study, which considers Bellows and his interest in sports, including boxing, basketball and baseball, in addition to tennis, and the cultural history of tennis in the 1910s, both in the U.S. in general and at Gustavus in particular.

George Bellows (1882-1925), Tennis Match (Camden, Maine), 1916, Conté crayon on paper, 8 x 10 7/8 inches, Gift of Reverend Richard L. Hillstrom

The great American painter, draftsman and printmaker George Bellows (1882-1925) might not have become an artist at all and pursued a career in professional sports instead. At a young age, he was immersed in both art and sports, and while his practical Columbus, Ohio family did little to encourage his artistic interest, his school environment and his circle of acquaintances certainly did support athletics, at which Bellows excelled. So, although drawing and painting won out in the end, it is not surprising that the artist sometimes choose sporting activities as the subject in his art (although he hardly ever depicted the two sports at which he most excelled, baseball and basketball, both of which he played on a semi-professional level).

The Hillstrom Museum of Art’s Collection has numerous works by Bellows that have been given or promised by the Reverend Richard L. Hillstrom, including a 1922 oil painting titled Sunset, Shady Valley, four lithographs of varying dates, and six drawings. One of these drawings is Tennis Match (Camden, Maine), which relates to Bellows’ time in the summer of 1916 in Camden, a picturesque coastal town in Maine known for its shipbuilding. The drawing, donated to the Museum in 2003, depicts a casual game of tennis played by Bellows, his wife Emma, and their good friend the painter Leon Kroll (1884-1974; Kroll is also represented in the Hillstrom Collection). Tennis Match is a well-developed image rather than just a sketch, and it bears an inscription made by Emma Bellows on its verso that not only confirms Bellows as the artist but also identifies the three figures and notes the location of the scene. As with many of Bellows’ works still in his family’s possession after his untimely death in 1925 (from complications following an operation for a ruptured appendix), Mrs. Bellows inscribed this drawing with her initials E.S.B. as an assurance that it is an authentic work by Bellows, who left many unsigned lithographs and drawings in his estate.

Bellows’ art was founded on his draftsmanship, and he began drawing at a very young age, using narrow scraps of drafting paper left over from his father’s work as a builder and architect. When Bellows entered high school, he introduced himself to the art teacher saying, “my name is George Bellows and I can draw.” His talent, though not strongly encouraged, was recognized, and his mother’s sister, George’s Aunt Fanny, valued his juvenile works enough that she saved them, while elementary school pals would sometimes offer Bellows payment in cookies if he would do a drawing for them.

Bellows’ work in painting was also highly dependent upon his drawing skills, and he was known as well for his extensive work in lithography, the printmaking medium that is the closest to drawing of all print forms. Bellows is credited with bringing about the acceptance of lithography as a fine art medium, and sometime soon after he made the Hillstrom Tennis Match (which is in conté crayon), he came to prefer use of the litho crayon for all his drawing, whether on a lithographic stone for reproduction or on paper for a unique drawing.


Just as drawing was a fundamental part of Bellows’ early life, so too were sports of great importance to him. As a boy, he developed an interest in baseball that, though it initially was a way to gain social standing with his peers, soon became one of his great passions. Bellows excelled at the game throughout high school and was elected captain of his team. He turned down an offer to join an “A” class professional team from the Indianapolis Western League at the end of high school. Bellows continued with baseball at Ohio State University, becoming a star player in the years he was enrolled there, 1901 to 1904, and he was scouted by semi-professional and professional teams such as the Cincinnati Reds near the at the end of his university education. Even after quitting the University and leaving for New York to become an artist, Bellows was still very involved in baseball, playing semi-pro ball with the Howards of Brooklyn, both for the love of the game and for the extra income it provided the penurious artist-in-training.

Basketball was another sport in which Bellows’ excellence was widely known. He played at the YMCA and in high school in Ohio, and became a well-known star player for Ohio State as well. He continued playing basketball after moving to New York, too, especially in the winter when baseball was not in season, and he was able to earn spare cash playing as a semi-pro on the New York Colonials team.

Bellows was recognized for his outstanding athleticism by many. One of his best friends as an adult was the painter Eugene Speicher (1883-1962; Speicher is also represented in the Hillstrom Collection), whom he met at the YMCA soon after coming to New York. When Speicher, who was from Buffalo, New York, heard Bellows’ name, he asked if he was the same George Bellows who had been such a great basketball player at Ohio State University. The two struck up an immediate friendship, and it was only a little later that they came to realize they both were artists.

Bellows’ athleticism also permeated his artistic practice. Friends of the artist remembered that when he was painting, he would bound back and forth, up to his canvas and then back a distance, attempting to have a long and close view almost simultaneously. This was recorded in a 1925 sketch by Bellows’ friend and fellow artist George Luks (1866-1933; Luks is also represented in the Hillstrom Collection) as part of a planning session for a memorial exhibit planned soon after Bellows’ death and held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The rapidly drawn image shows Bellows caught as if in mid lunge towards his easel, his legs in a wide stance, one arm held back to counterbalance the thrust of his paint brush towards the canvas. The action in the drawing is like the jab of a boxer or the parry of a fencer, and it conveys the energy of the artist’s method.

Bellows and Tennis

Tennis was another sport that Bellows enjoyed greatly, although he was not known for it like he was for baseball and basketball. Tennis was the only sport that Bellows both played frequently and also explored in depth in his artwork. He rarely made images of baseball or basketball, and he had little personal involvement in boxing, the sport that is best known in his art. Bellows’ artistic reputation both in his lifetime and today is heavily based on his images of boxing, among them his important paintings of boxing matches titled Stag at Sharkey’s (1909, Cleveland Museum of Art) and Both Members of This Club (1909, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.).

It is likely that Bellows played tennis in his youth in Ohio. On a visit back to the Midwest not long after his move to New York, he played the game with Joe Taylor, one of his favorite former professors from Ohio State University, and it’s possible that they had also played in the period before the artist left for the big city. Although there was no formal tennis team at the University until 1912, some eight years after Bellows’ departure, the game must have been known there, and known around Columbus generally.

Bellows continued to find tennis an enjoyable pastime after his relocation to New York. He played it there with his future wife Emma during their courtship, and he was recognized by others for his abilities. Bellows was friends with Fred Cornell, a baseball and basketball teammate from his Columbus days who also roomed with Bellows for a year when they both were in New York. For a 1948 doctoral study on Bellows written by Frank Sieberling, Jr. (which remains a crucial source for studies of the artist), Cornell reminisced about Bellows’ skill in tennis, recalling that he liked the game a great deal. In the same study, painter Eugene Speicher recalled that Bellows frequently played tennis in New York, and Speicher and Bellows played doubles with fellow artists Leon Kroll and William Glackens (1870-1938; Glackens is also represented in the Hillstrom Collection). Bellows’ widow Emma noted that tennis, because of its greater availability, gradually replaced baseball as Bellows’ summer sport (although he evidently never completely gave up baseball, and, according to his daughter Anne, organized teams in Woodstock, New York, where the family spent their summers starting in 1922).

Bellows in Camden, Maine

The Bellows family, like many New Yorkers of their time who could afford to do so, typically left the city during the hot summer months. They spent several summers in various locations in Maine, and in 1916, chose Camden, a small harbor town nestled against Mt. Battie. The Camden shipbuilding industry became a primary artistic subject for Bellows during the months of the family’s residency, as did the sea in general.

Camden’s remoteness from the usual summer crowds was appealing to Bellows, as was the availability of tennis, at the Camden Yacht Club, the location in the Hillstrom drawing. Although the relative isolation of Camden was conducive to Bellows’ work, being a sociable man, he missed the company of his artist friends and he persuaded Leon Kroll to come there for the remainder of that summer. Kroll was soon ensconced in a small dwelling next to the Bellows’ rental house, and was a frequent companion of the family. Kroll painted George and Emma and their daughters Anne and Jean out of doors at their home. Bellows in turn recorded a memorable occurrence in which he, Kroll, Emma, and four-year-old Anne were rowing back across Camden Harbor after a morning outing. A storm suddenly came up and the squall threatened to push them out to sea, while waves dumping water into their boat threatened to capsize them. Bellows’ painting In a Rowboat (Montclair Art Museum, New Jersey) depicts this dramatic event, with Kroll frantically rowing to keep the craft under control. Bellows’ record books indicate that In a Rowboat dates to July of 1916.

Bellows also recorded in the books an oil painting from August that year that he titled Tennis on the Hill, a work he later destroyed, evidently dissatisfied with it. That painting might well have related closely to the Hillstrom drawing, which shows the tennis game being played on a court raised somewhat above the water of Camden’s inner harbor. Unfortunately, while Bellows sometimes made small sketches in the record book entries as visual documentation of his works, he did not do so for the destroyed tennis painting.

Whether or not the Hillstrom drawing was intended as a study for the painting, it is a work of great quality and interest. The three figures of Bellows, his wife, and Kroll are handled in the artist’s sure manner. They contrast distinctly with the water, boats, and distant buildings in the middle ground, which in turn stand out against the subtle indications in the background of the hilly topography and the sky above. Emma Bellows, in the center, waits courtside with her racquet held down at her side. At the right is the tall, powerful, and graceful figure that likely represents Bellows, who stood well over six feet and whose athletic build was noted by his contemporaries. He appears to have just hit a shot towards Kroll, who is poised to return with his forehand stroke. Kroll was relatively short, especially compared to Bellows, who was nearly a head taller than him, and his diminutive stature is indicated in the drawing.

Much of the detail in the background of Bellows’ drawing can be identified. A postcard in the collection of the Walsh History Center at the Camden Public Library, dating probably from the 1920s, gives a view of the tennis court at the Camden Yacht Club (founded in 1906) that corresponds closely to the Hillstrom drawing. According to the Director of the Walsh History Center, the structure with the slanted roof beyond the player identified as Bellows (at the lower right) is the Clubhouse. The buildings across the harbor (above Emma’s head) are those of the Holly M. Bean Shipyard, and to the left of them, docked at a wharf, is one of the steamships that carried passengers up the coast of Maine. In the background beyond is Mt. Battie, which stands just over 800 feet above sea level, and perched atop it is a dark structure that Bellows must have meant to represent the old Mt. Battie Hotel, which was torn down just a few years after the drawing, in 1920. To the right of Mt. Battie is Mt. Megunticook. Bellows used the middleground and background elements of the drawing to frame and emphasize the three tennis-playing figures in the foreground.

In choosing tennis as a subject for his art, Bellows was not only being true to his own interest in athletics, but also to the spirit of the Ashcan School, the appellation given to an informal group of artists of this era who followed the modernist precepts of Bellows’ teacher and friend Robert Henri (1865-1929; Henri is also represented in the Hillstrom Collection). Such artists turned away from the Romanticism of late nineteenth-century American art and instead chose to consider everyday, often urban, life (including even the “ashcans,” as the garbage bins of the cities were then called). And Bellows was not alone in using tennis as a subject. His fellow Ashcan artist William Glackens in 1909 had painted Lawn Tennis, while another contemporary associated with both Bellows and Glackens, Ernest Lawson (1873-1939; Lawson is also represented in the Hillstrom Collection), painted, around 1914, a work titled Tennis Court, Palisades.

History of Tennis, Early Depictions in Art

The Hillstrom drawing captures the essence of recreational tennis in the early twentieth century. The beautiful setting in Camden takes the viewer to the section of the country where tennis was first played in the United States. The modern game of tennis was invented by England’s Major Walter Wingfield in 1873 and brought shortly thereafter to the cricket clubs of New England. The first U.S. national men’s tournament was held in 1881 in Newport, Rhode Island, followed by the first national women’s tournament in 1887, held in Philadelphia.

Tennis became the subject of art soon after its invention. For instance, in Europe, Irish artist Sir John Lavery (1856-1941) painted The Tennis Party, his 1885 depiction of two genteel mixed-gender couples playing on an expansive lawn of grass. A few years later, American Impressionist Robert Vonnoh (1858-1933) painted The Ring, an 1892 image of a young man who, in the midst of a break from tennis, presents an engagement ring to his playing partner and intended. The man still holds his racquet, and the tennis lawn is seen in the background.

In the early years most tennis was played on grass. Indeed, the words “lawn tennis” remained part of United States Tennis Association’s name until the second half of the twentieth century. But by the end of the nineteenth century, clay courts started to gain popularity. Bellows’ drawing shows such a court in a quiet setting, not a busy club environment where national tournaments were held and where one might catch a glimpse of “Big Bill” Tilden, one of the world’s greatest tennis players. By 1916 Tilden had won several United States mixed doubles titles. In the early 1920s he became the dominant player in the world, winning six straight U.S. singles titles and three Wimbledon championships.

Bellows saw Tilden play at the annual tournament at Newport, Rhode Island in 1918 and again in 1919, and he also saw Bill Johnston, another prominent player of the era who had been considered the top American competitor until Tilden began to displace him. Johnston’s nickname was “Little Bill,” to distinguish him from Tilden. Bellows created a number of tennis-based works from his experience at Newport, including four oil paintings, two lithographs, and numerous drawings. One of his sketches includes images of a male player, who looks like Johnston, in mid-serve. The sketch also includes a study of a lanky male player, leaning over in readiness for play, possibly an image of Tilden, who, like Bellows, was quite tall. Bellows greatly admired Tilden, and a comparison between Bellows as a baseball player and Tilden as a tennis player was made by Fred Cornell, Bellows’ friend, sports teammate, and New York roommate, which noted that both men had “colorful” personalities and that both were “great and graceful player[s].” Emma Bellows recalled the summers in Newport as among the happiest and most prolific in Bellows’ life. She stated that Bellows was not aiming for portraiture in his finished Newport tennis works, being more interested in the setting and the spirit of the national tournament. But she also specified that Tilden and Johnston were the outstanding players there.

Although the image portrayed by Bellows in 1916 in the Hillstrom drawing was very different from the national tournament scene of Newport that he later considered, an interesting parallel can be drawn. Tilden’s rise to fame began with mixed doubles, games in which a man and a woman compete together. National singles tennis championships for both men and women began in the 1880s and mixed doubles began in 1892—more than twenty years before women were given the right to vote in the United States. In the Hillstrom drawing, Bellows shows male and female playing tennis together, recalling the social equality in tennis that preceded the political sphere.

The setting of Bellows’ drawing reveals something important about the growth of tennis in the United States. The newly invented game came to New England from across the Atlantic, but the spread of tennis did not stop there. All across the U.S., in big cities and small towns, wherever sufficiently large pieces of flat lawn could be located, homemade tennis courts sprang up. The American public became fascinated with this new game that both men and women could enjoy together, that required physical conditioning, and that could be played by families for a lifetime.

Tennis at Gustavus Adolphus College

The little Minnesota town of St. Peter, like Camden, Maine or Columbus, Ohio, was no exception. In 1892 a group of students at Gustavus Adolphus College formed a Lawn Tennis Organization. They drew lines on the grass fields and put up a net. Before long tennis had become one of the three most popular sports on campus (the other two being baseball and basketball). The 1906 college yearbook, titled Runes, reported, “Tennis is another outdoors pastime and favorite exercise. Especially last year was this game enthusiastically played. The class of ’06 is especially prominent in this sport.”

The sports editor philosophized further, contrasting tennis with football, which the College’s Board of Trustees had recently banned from the campus:

All in all, we have athletics in the most sensible forms. We do not regret the elimination of football, as we are decidedly willing to concede that any game which is in general dangerous to life and limb is not what it ought to be. Our students show great interest in the forms of athletics which we have. They enter into the various games with a spirit that is conducive to the most healthful exertion. Instead of the weak, morose and idiosyncratic bookworm of decades ago we find the strong, cheerful & healthy-minded student of today.

Long live athletics at Gustavus Adolphus, the home of the good and the noble, of strength and courage, the abode of the twentieth century Viking.

For the next ten years, up to the time in 1916 when Bellows drew his tennis scene, the game flourished on the Gustavus campus. In 1911 six new grass courts were constructed west of Old Main. The 1912 college yearbook, titled Bredablick, contains pictures showing women playing tennis in long skirts and middy blouses while the men wear long-sleeved white shirts, ties, and white trousers. Nineteen students graduated from Gustavus that year and fourteen of them included tennis in their coats of arms. Three other students mentioned basketball, but no other sport was named. In 1914 intercollegiate matches began with meets against the University of St. Thomas and Carleton College. In 1915 the editor of the College Breezes, the Gustavus student newspaper, wrote:

Though tennis is uninteresting from the spectator’s point of view, it is becoming increasingly popular with the players and justly so. It is really on the boom at this school and can now be added to basketball as the second prominent inter-collegiate sport at G.A.

The Bellows’ drawing, however, evokes thoughts of recreational play more than intercollegiate competition. The focus is not on winning or losing, but the joy of beautiful surroundings, the warmth of a bright sun, the exhilarating feeling of good exercise, and the camaraderie of friends. Echoing a similar theme, the College Breezes editor wrote in May 1914:

This spring tennis is the most popular recreation. And it is well so! To breast the net and hit out with an exhilarating swing of arm and body; through the stress and sweat, to be conscious of the kind sun, the fresh turf and the green trees that fringe the field—is not this one of life’s priceless pleasures? It is a game, as becoming to “profs” as to “preps”, to “lassies” as to “laddies,” to age as to youth.

Sportsmanship and Mutual Respect in Tennis

The Bellows drawing communicates an atmosphere of mutual respect. Officials are not necessary, because players have been trained to follow the highest standards of sportsmanship. Opponents applaud each other’s good shots, and the matches end with handshakes, consoling words to the loser, and compliments for the winner.

This spirit of gentility is reflected by the College Breezes editor in April 1915:

It is to you students to take advantage of this fine weather, and come out and participate in the only game which is really and truly encouraged at this institution, that is, tennis. This applies to ye inmates of the dorm too.

Don’t be bashful, girls. Any time you want to play and find the boys occupying the courts, just bear in mind the fact that the latter are gentlemen. All you have to do is to inform them that there is a baseball diamond on the campus, and they will promptly turn the courts over to you.

Sportsmanship is also a noticeable priority in the editor’s description of the first intercollegiate match for Gustavus, a loss to the University of St. Thomas on May 14, 1914:

Being accustomed to nothing but “sham battles” and for the first time playing an experienced team before a large concourse of people, our boys could only give their adversaries a merry chase for every point they gained. Both the visitors and the locals played a crisp, steady game, and no one deserves special commendation on either side, except perhaps Krebsbach, whose quickness of eye, steadiness of hand and limberness of muscle make a strong, graceful player. One comment on the lips of the interested spectators during the series was “Winning or losing, they never get rattled.” The visitors exhibited their credentials as gentlefolks by their good humored conduct and due praise of our courts.

A day later the team traveled to Northfield, Minnesota to play Carleton College. Again they met defeat. The editor wrote:

In the sweltering heat of that day they again fought a close, but a losing series of games. We need not, however, arouse any patriotic dislike to defeat when it comes at the trained hands of such an old and experienced team.

In 2008, almost one hundred years later, important aspects of the Bellows drawing continue to resonate. Men and women competing with and against each other, even at the highest professional level, remains a noteworthy achievement. All four of the major grand slam tennis tournaments today feature mixed doubles. Even the prize money for men and women’s singles is the same. No other major sport has promoted and accomplished this kind of true gender equality.

Sportsmanship is another theme that continues to be associated with tennis today. Except for the Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe era of the 1970s and 1980s, when poor behavior was taken to an unprecedented level, good sportsmanship has always been a trademark of tennis. The tennis stadium at the U.S. Open was named for Arthur Ashe, picked by Sports Illustrated as the greatest sportsman of the twentieth century. The top two male players in the world today—Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal—never challenge officials’ line calls and never show temper on the court. They are humble in victory and gracious in defeat.

And while most sports require officials, most tennis competition at the USTA league, college, and high school levels have none. Tennis has “The Code,” which requires participants to call the lines on their side of the net. The ball is good if there is any doubt. In other words, each player bends over backwards in favor of the opponent. No one questions the line calls of an opponent. To do so would destroy the integrity of the game. This is in striking contrast to certain sports in which participants are taught to “push the envelope” and to avoid umpire detection.

The spirit of fun and play that is captured in Bellows’ drawing continues to dominate the Gustavus tennis environment. Each summer for the past 32 years, the campus has been filled with hundreds of recreational tennis players attending Tennis and Life Camps. The Camps emphasize the “Three Crowns” of tennis—positive attitude, full effort, and good sportsmanship. By focusing on the things over which players have control, rather than how well they play or whether they win or lose, the participants develop a game plan that will keep tennis fun for the rest of their lives.

George Bellows’ drawing of a Tennis Match is an enduring celebration of tennis-centered fun, physical activity, friendship, gender equity, and good sportsmanship. Bellows drew in Camden, Maine in 1916, but the setting could have been Gustavus today, since those aspects of the game are still fundamental. And just as tennis was clearly important to Bellows, so is it of importance at the College. Perhaps 73% of Gustavus seniors would not now put tennis in their coats of arms, as they did in 1912, but a large number would. Twenty-four outdoor courts and six indoor ones on campus confirm a continuing love for tennis, and the values it represents, here at Gustavus.

Steve Wilkinson, Coach, Men’s Tennis Program
Donald Myers, Director, Hillstrom Museum of Art

Suggestions for further reading

Bellows: The Boxing Pictures, E. A. Carmean, Jr., John Wilmerding, Linda Ayres, and Deborah Chotner, exhibition catalogue, published by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1982.

Bud Collins’ Modern Encyclopedia of Tennis, Bud Collins and Zander Hollander, eds., second edition, Detroit, 1994.

An Exhibition: Ladies and Gentlemen of the Court: American Tennis and Croquet Art, 1865-1935, Lynn Cabot-Puro, masters thesis, State University of New York Fashion Institute of Technology, 1994.

From Class to Mass: Changing Images of American Tennis, 1874-1979, James Russell Rogers, doctoral dissertation, University of Minnesota, 1979.

George Bellows: An Artist in Action, Mary Sayre Haverstock, Columbus, Ohio, 2007.

George Bellows, 1882-1925, His Life and Development as an Artist, Frank Sieberling, Jr., doctoral dissertation, University of Chicago, 1948.

George Bellows, Painter of America, Charles H. Morgan, New York, 1965.

The Paintings of George Bellows, Michael Quick, Jane Myers, Marianne Doezema and Franklin Kelly, with an introduction by John Wilmerding, exhibition catalogue, published by the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1992.

Tennis: A Cultural History, Heiner Gillmeister, London, 1997.