Modern tennis, as we know it, was actually developed as a social game in the 1870’s by a British officer, Major Walter Wingfield. The patented game came with rackets for four players, rubber balls, nets and posts. Originally the net was set at approximately seven feet in height and the challenge was to sustain a rally instead of besting the opposition. Over the next thirty years the game was embraced by both the upper and middle class in England and America. While the social aspects of the sport spread its popularity, there also grew an interest in competitive sets that was facilitated by the adoption of rules that made the game more fast-paced and demanding on player’s skills. By 1919, the competitive ranks of tennis had grown exponentially and over two hundred tournaments were sanctioned by the United States Lawn Tennis Association across the country. In anticipation of the 1919 Doubles Championships, held that year in mid-August at the Longwood Cricket Club in Boston, MA, the Newport Lawn Tennis Club staged an invitational tournament for the leading competitors in the sport. For a week legendary players, such as Bill Johnston and Bill Tilden, battled it out in five set matches on the spacious enclosed grass courtyard of the Newport Casino. George Bellows, who enjoyed playing the game in New York with fellow artists Eugene Speicher, Leon Kroll and William Glackens, was there for that week. He enjoyed not only watching some exciting tennis, but the throngs of people in elegant attire who were there at the club at the height of the social season. The artist had vacationed with his wife and two young daughters in Rhode Island during the previous summer in Middletown, which is adjacent to Newport. All of them returned for a longer stay at the shore in 1919, but George Bellows had to leave them frequently and travel into Newport to work on a portrait of his patron, Mrs. Chester Dale. Maud Dale and her husband were one of the wealthiest couple’s in America at that time and would have made sure that Bellows would have easy access to the grounds of the Casino.
The Newport Casino, designed by Charles McKim and Stanford White, opened to its members in 1881. From its inception as a social club, the Casino held concerts, tea parties and theatrical events, and also, from its first year until 1914, staged the annual United States Lawn Tennis Association championships. The horse-shoe grass court in the center of the grounds of the Casino provided an opulent setting to sit, watch and observe an afternoon of tennis. The tennis court was oriented with the two service lines facing each other on a north/south axis. While the two-story section of the club was situated to the west of the court, the single level passageway bounded the eastern edge. In August 1919 Bellows attempted to paint two views of the Casino courtyard tournament: one looking east from the second floor of the main building (Tennis Tournament, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY), shown below, and the other looking west across the court from ground level (The Tournament, Private collection, Washington, DC), shown below. In both cases Bellows took the compositions to an advanced stage, yet he seemed to be unsettled somehow in his approach. It appears that he had a problem with the compression of the court in the middle of each work. In the Metropolitan’s painting, there is inadequate space for the doubles players to move about, even though they are nicely sculpted and harmonize well with the crowd of onlookers beyond them. In The Tournament, Bellows came much closer to success. The background feels solid and in proper perspective to the foreground. Unfortunately, the middle distance cannot support visually the transition between the two. Back in his studio, the artist actually added two inches of canvas to the height of this work in order to try and give the composition enough volume, but still in the end he gave up on the work and started over.
During the early winter months of 1920, George Bellows worked on drawing and printing lithographs on the top floor of his townhouse. In other years, he would produce literally dozens of different prints in his workshop, but in this year he completed only two: Tennis and The Tournament. Both lithographs are fresh and successful attempts at resolving the issues of perspective that hampered the earlier efforts in the oil paintings. Furthermore, the artist maintains a sense of action in the two works. While Tennis relies upon the players for motion, Bellows cleverly instills movement in The Tournament through the subtle bending, twisting and turning of the spectators in the foreground. Truly, they make the second composition livelier than the first.
While completing the above lithographs, Bellows stretched new canvases and approached these same compositions again in paint. The resultant two oils, finished over the next few months, follow closely the design as mapped out in the two lithographs. Bellows probably worked on the two large paintings of tennis from 1920 at the same time; however, he brought Tennis at Newport (Private collection, Dallas, TX), to completion first and recorded it in his record book for March of that year. The painting embraces all of the successful draughtmanship of the lithograph and then goes one level higher in the introduction of a chromatic palette of reds, purples, greens and yellows. One gets a sense that Bellows worked through this version with intensity and alacrity.
On the other hand, surprisingly, the larger of the 1920 paintings, Tennis Tournament (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC), was never finished, although the artist recorded it in his record book for June of that year. Several of the spectators and the server at right were outlined, but then left abandoned. Perhaps he lost interest in the subject, or more likely, he found himself boxed into a corner. The foreground movement in the large painting just did have the same power as expressed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s1919 version of the scene. As well, Bellows found another world to explore that summer. He made his first visit to the artist’s colony of Woodstock, New York and found there a place of scenic beauty and pleasant company. Newport would remain for him a brief interlude and a challenging world to paint, but at least he tried, and we benefit from seeing the efforts and their evolution.