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Sports, Pelota, Basque Village, Spain, John Groth, Vintage Watercolor, 20th Century


John Groth (1902-1988)
Basque Village Pelota
American: 1970
Signed and titled upper right in image: “John Groth [19]70 Basque Village Pelota”
Stamped verso: “Copyright John Groth”
Titled Verso: “Basque Village Pelota — 2”
Watercolor on paper
38.25 x 25.75 inches, image
40 x 26.5 inches, overall
Provenance: A Fort Lauderdale Collector

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Colorful, freely painted watercolor on an unusually large sheet of paper, showing a game of pelota in the churchyard of a Basque village, played by Catholic priests wearing cassocks. The painting is in the typical style of John Groth, an American illustrator who worked in a loose, sketchy style he called “speed line,” stressing light and motion, not details.

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This work is closely related to one appearing in John Groth’s World of Sport, a book published in 1970 and featuring Groth’s illustrations of 43 sports from around the world that are each part of a particular regional folk culture. One section depicts Basque games and includes a two-page spread of a detail from a painting titled Churchyard Pelota, dated 1969, that was done on the same size sheet of paper but as a horizontal rather than a vertical. The placement of buildings and people is virtually identical, but the one offered here appears to take place under a midday sun, while the book version is darker and bluer with strong shadows, as if in late afternoon. The accompanying text explains the subject matter: “In the summer, when Spain’s fierce sun blasts the villages, Catholic priests wrapped in their heavy cassocks can often be seen catching the hard little ball against the wall of the local church. … Certainly they play for enjoyment and for exercise, but also play to seem less remote to the young men of their parishes.” Given that the painting offered here is titled Basque Village Pelota – 2 it may be surmised that Groth produced this alternate version to try the composition in both a horizontal and a vertical format with two different lighting situations, perhaps to have both possibilities available for the book.

The Basque people inhabit a region of the Pyrenees mountain range in France and Spain. Pelota is the Spanish name for a variety of court sports popular in various parts of Europe, Mexico and South America, also known as pilota and pelote. The game shown here is a traditional Basque version, played outdoors with a wooden bat called a pala and a small rubber ball, on a court formed by the exterior wall of a building.

John August Groth was a painter and illustrator best known for his sports and war subjects. Born in Chicago, he studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. He was discovered at the age of 25 by Arnold Gingrich, founding editor of Esquire magazine, who happened by Groth’s work at an outdoor art fair and hired Groth to fill out the first issue with 17 pages of illustrations and gave him the title of art director. Groth held that position for the next four years, until he left Chicago for New York. From the beginning, Groth gravitated toward depictions of men in action, in a style he called “speed line,” in which he made gestural line renderings based on on-site sketches and fleshed out the form with freely brushed watercolors.

An adventurous spirit, Groth was an artist-correspondent during World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, drawing battlefield scenes from sketches made on site, and impressing no less than Ernest Hemingway, who said: “He gets to the essence of war.” Yet he was by all accounts a nonviolent man and was among the artists attending the First Congress of American Artists Against War and Fascism in 1936, along with Stuart Davis, Peter Blume and Margaret Bourke-White. In 1945, he published Studio: Europe, a collection of drawings made during World War II with an introduction by Hemingway. This book included front line battle scenes, villages, and Picasso’s studio. In 1952, Groth published Studio: Asia, a narrative and pictorial document of the Korean War and his travels to Japan, China and Indochina.

His sporting subjects included everything from boxing and baseball to the unusual sports from farflung corners of the world depicted in his book John Groth’s World of Sport (1970). These included Thai kite fighting and an assortment of chaotic and dangerous contests involving men on horseback in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Groth’s works are in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, the U.S. Army Center of Military History and the Naval Historical Center in Washington, the United States Air Force Collection, as well as the National Art Museum of Sport, Indianapolis.

Condition: Generally very good, the paper and colors uniformly toned overall, but still bright. Approximately one inch or less of mat burn where formerly matted, and tape residue on outer edge, all to be matted out when reframed. Formerly drymounted, with wax residue therefrom on the back, apparently stable and not affecting the work.


“Arnold Friedman.” (20 April 2004).

Groth, John, Pat Smith and Arnold Gingrich. John Groth’s World of Sport. New York: Winchester Press, 1970. pp. 5-10, 36-39, 150.

“John Groth.” NationalArt Museum of Sport. (3 March 2003).

“John Groth.” United States Air Force Collection. (20 April 2004).

“Pilota.” Wikipedia. 13 December 2006. (14 December 2006).

Additional information


20th Century