The above image has been the wallpaper on my work PC for several weeks. I don’t recall how I came across it, but it has become one of my favorite paintings. It’s called The Wrestlers (1899, oil on canvas, Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, OH) and it was painted by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916). Eakins is well known as an artist of homoerotic subject matter and is best known for The Swimming Hole, which he painted in 1884/5. Originally called Swimming, the much beloved work was preceded by a series of photographic studies showing a nude and attractive Eakins (left) accompanied by his equally nude students frolicking at Mill Creek near Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
I find it interesting that Eakins did not choose to portray these wrestlers nude. After all, I’m certain that by the late 19th century (and presumably much earlier), it was an established fact that young male athletes in ancient Greece wrestled in the palaestra au naturale. Whether they did in 19th-century Philadelphia is another story. Eakins himself was no stranger to nudes and painted (and photographed) many male nudes during his career as an artist. Perhaps Eakins sensed that there was a difference between painting a group of nude youths swimming and painting a nude youth pinned by another nude youth. As it was, Eakins’ use of photographic nude studies as drawing aids in the classroom drew criticism from his colleagues and he was fired by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1886 for allowing a mixed class to sketch from a completely nude male model. Perhaps he was wary of the potential scandal that nude wrestlers would have aroused.
In spite of the fact that the subjects are not nude, The Wrestlers possesses an intense eroticism. To be sure, they’re not wearing much—they may not be bare, but they’re barely covered. Like many of Eakins’ paintings and photographs, The Wrestlers celebrates the beauty of the male form and invites the viewer’s gaze to linger over their lean bodies and taut muscles. Moreover, the scene suggests a sexual passivity as well, as the bottom wrestler is pinned and held passive and submissive by the victor on top. This sense of sexual conquest is heightened by the body contact, almost intimate in nature. Time and again, my eyes are drawn to the subtle way in which the winner’s right hand (holding down his opponent’s right hand) rests against the vanquished wrestler’s perineum.
During his time in France at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts, Eakins was a student of Jean-Léon Gérôme, for whom he had great affection, though Eakins himself was critical of the French academy’s preoccupation with classical subjects. Eakins was also an admirer of Walt Whitman and painted a stunning portrait of the poet in 1887. While Whitman used verse to proclaim the beauty of the mail form, Eakins used the brush and the camera, and it’s not surprising that the two formed a lasting friendship. Nonetheless, Eakins’ erotic interest in males has proven even more difficult to pin down than Whitman’s. Eakins married fellow artist Susan Macdowell (1851-1938) in 1884.