Wrestlers

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Wrestlers

United States, circa 1899
Paintings
Oil on canvas
16 1/16 x 20 1/16 in. (40.8 x 50.96 cm)
Mr. and Mrs. William Preston Harrison Collection (48.32.1)
Not currently on public view

Curator Notes

In Paris Eakins had been thoroughly trained in the academic system of preparing extensive studies before beginning a major painting....
In Paris Eakins had been thoroughly trained in the academic system of preparing extensive studies before beginning a major painting. He practiced this approach all his life and taught it to his pupils. Before undertaking his paintings of the boxers and other athletes that he painted at the end of the 1890s, Eakins spent hours watching the men, studying their movements in light of his knowledge of anatomy. He posed two wrestlers in the Quaker City Athletic Club and in his studio, where in May 1899 several photographs were taken. The man on top is Joseph McCann, a wrestler and champion boxer. He is posed holding his opponent in a half nelson and crotch hold, potentially close to winning. Eakins copied the photograph of this pose almost directly onto a canvas, 1899 (Philadelphia Museum of Art), the purpose of which would have been to clarify the details of musculature that were unclear in the photograph. The next step in the preparatory process was the museum's small oil painting, which served as a compositional sketch. In it the artist worked out the placement of the figures in the composition of the finished canvas Wrestlers, 1899, also owned by the LACMA. Eakins made some slight changes in the positions of the wrestlers, especially in the right leg of the lower man and in the head and shoulders of the upper man. Eakins's main interest was in placing them in relation to the figures he was now introducing, the lower body of an observer or referee on the right and a man at a rowing machine in the upper left. The short white line at the referee's foot represents the rope that marked off the boundaries of the wrestling arena. The men were nude in the photograph and initial figure study but wear trunks in the large finished version. The black area in the museum's sketch that looks as though it might represent trunks probably is only an indication of an area of shadow. Athletes in the period wore light-colored trunks that were cut very high over the hips as seen in the finished painting. Achieving the proper balance within the composition was especially important to Eakins at this point in his career, because of his increased awareness of surface design and internal structure. Like most artists at the turn of the century Eakins introduced into his paintings devices that had the effect of compromising the illusion of depth while creating a more even, overall, decorative pattern; in this example he did so by the placement of the rower in the extreme upper left corner and by cropping the standing man with the top edge of the painting, which pulls what is normally the part farthest away into the same plane as that of the foreground figures of the wrestlers. William Preston Harrison bought the oil sketch upon the advice of CHILDE HASSAM, when it was exhibited in Los Angeles.
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About The Era

The late nineteenth century witnessed a growing cosmopolitanism and sophistication in American culture....
The late nineteenth century witnessed a growing cosmopolitanism and sophistication in American culture. Great riches were amassed by railroad tycoons and land barons, and along with this came the desire for a luxurious standard of living. Collectors filled their homes with European as well as American works of art. American artists, generally trained abroad, often painted in styles that were indistinguishable from their European counterparts.
Most Americans who studied abroad did so in the European academies, which promoted uplifting subject matter and a representational style that emphasized well-modeled, clearly defined forms and realistic color. Academic painting served American artists well, for their clients demanded elaborate large-scale paintings to demonstrate their wealth and social positions. With an emphasis on material objects and textures, academic artists immortalized their patrons’ importance in full-length portraits.
Academic painting dominated taste in Europe throughout the century. But in the 1860s impressionism emerged in France as a reaction to this hegemony. By the 1880s this “new painting” was still considered progressive. Mary Cassatt was the only American invited to participate in the revolutionary Paris impressionist exhibitions. Despite her participation and the early interest of several other American painters, few Americans explored impressionism until the 1890s. Impressionist painters no longer had to choose subject matter of an elevated character but instead could depict everyday scenes and incidents. Nor did impressionists have to record the physical world with the objective detail of a photograph. Artists were now encouraged to leave their studios and paint outside under different weather conditions. American impressionists used the new aesthetic to capture the charm and beauty of the countryside and the city as well as the quiet delicacy of domestic interiors.
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Bibliography

  • About the Era.
  • Hopkins, Henry T. ed., Los Angeles County Museum of Art:  Illustrated Handbook.  West Germany:  Bruder Hartmann, 1965.
  • Fort, Ilene Susan and Michael Quick.  American Art:  a Catalogue of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Collection.  Los Angeles:  Museum Associates, 1991.