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By Culturekiosque Staff

ST. PETERSBURG, FLORIDA, 15 MAY 2012 — Members of the Collectors Circle, a support group at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, voted for Fletcher Martin’s The Undefeated (about 1948) to be added to the museum's permanent collection. 

Acquired for an undisclosed purchase price and currently on view at the MFA, the American painting conveys the drama surrounding the great Joe Louis’s last championship match in 1948. Instead of depicting the winner, Martin focused on his opponent, Jersey Joe Walcott, trying to rise after a knockout in the 11th round. He is supported by referee Frank Fullam.

Fletcher Martin (American, 1904-1979): The Undefeated (about 1948)
Oil on canvas
Museum Purchase with funds provided by the Collectors Circle

The rivalry between Louis and Walcott was legendary. Both had risen to stardom in the face of terrible discrimination against African American athletes. Louis won a heavily contested 15-round decision against Walcott in 1947, leading to this much publicized rematch.

Walcott may look physically battered in The Undefeated, but the painting’s verticality supports his determination, his effort to move upward. The bold ropes slice through the space, indicating the tension and force of the fight. Martin also emphasizes Walcott’s right arm. The boxer was known for his right punch. In the painting, he is battling himself, his physical limitations, more than champion Joe Louis.

Jersey Joe finally won the heavyweight crown in 1951 at age 37. He went on to pursue a number of careers — boxing referee, professional wrestler, and public servant. He even appeared in the move The Harder They Fall (1956) with Humphrey Bogart, and in 1971, became the first African American to be elected sheriff in Camden County, New Jersey. This accomplished man, who had to leave school after his father’s death to support his mother and 11 siblings, spent his life breaking barriers. He passed away in 1994 at the age of 80. He truly was "the undefeated." Martin’s painting is prescient.

According to Chief Curator Jennifer Hardin, this large-scale work "relates not only to works of the period, like the dramatic posters and paintings of Ben Shahn and murals by John Steuart Curry, but also to canonical subjects in art history, such as martyrdoms and depositions. Martin is represented in a number of major collections, including the Museum of Modern Art."

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