Athlete Struggling (Wrestling) with a Python
Athlete Struggling (Wrestling) with a Python

NEW SCULPTURE (1877-1914)

Athlete Struggling (Wrestling) with a Python

1877 England

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The greatest of High Victorian Neo-classical artists, Frederick Leighton had an extraordinary and far-ranging talent recognisable in his large scale Royal Academy exhibits and his highly personal oil studies, drawings and maquettes for sculpture.

In 1874 Leighton was commissioned to paint the large processional picture The Daphnephoria, and it was for this that he modelled maquettes for several of the figures, a technique he was to continue to use in the future. It was while working on these first figures that the idea of Athlete Strangling a Python came to him. His painting 'Hercules Wrestling with Death for the body of Alcestis (1869 -1871; Wadsworth Atheneum, Connecticut) had allowed him the opportunity to explore the anatomical complexities of the male nude in action, which he further developed in this sculpture. 'Athlete Strangling a Python' was an innovative work. The manner with which Leighton treated the human form, rendering the body in a natural and detailed way, was in complete contrast to the academic tradition so entrenched in Britain. There are classical sources for the composition, most notably the ancient Greek statue The Laocoon.

Leighton gave a small modello as a gift to the painter George Boughton NA who wrote to the artist 'I don’t know which to admire most - the sketch as you call it (it seems heroic in size even now) or your great kindness in sending it to me. Now that I may enjoy it at my leisure... it seems finer even than I thought it was.' Leighton also gave a modello (of textured plaster, now in Leighton House) to his friend George Frederick Watts RA who, on subsequently presenting it to Mrs Russell Barrington, said 'I am giving you the most beautiful thing I have in my place'.

The ensuing life size bronze 'An Athlete Strangling a Python' which Leighton exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1877 was arguably the most influential piece of English sculpture of the 19th Century. Of its origins, Leighton recalled in a published article in 1894:

'When I was at work upon the Daphnephoria it occurred to me to model some of the figures. It was at this time that the idea of my Athlete Struggling with a Python came into my mind, and so I modelled this figure.’ (Here Sir Frederic crossed to the shelf and picked up the first sketch in clay) ‘It was admired by several people, who took it, by the way, for a genuine antique. Some French sculptor - Dalou, I think; I am not quite sure - was particularly pleased with it, and advised me to carry it out life size. Later on, as you know, the bronze was exhibited at the Royal Academy, and bought for the nation. In Paris it was accorded the gold medal, as the work of un sculpteur.’ Here Sir Frederick smiled at the idea of being reckoned an English sculptor.'(1)

Sir Edgar Boehm wrote to Leighton in 1877 that 'it is the best statue of modern days' and the critic Edmund Gosse saw it was 'something wholly new, propounded by a painter to the professional sculptors and displaying a juster and livelier sense of what their art should be than they themselves had ever dreamed of'. It was purchased by the Chantrey Bequest for the Tate Gallery. The original plaster cast was given to the Royal Academy by the artist in 1886, and in 1891 a marble version was commissioned by the Glyptothek, Copenhagen (now in a private collection, England).

Leighton’s Athlete Strangling a Python was to have a liberating effect on a whole generation of younger English sculptors, and for many years it was the representative work chosen to illustrate any reference to the term ‘New Sculpture’.

1. The Studio
Private collection (in the same family collection since before 1900)
- Ben Read, Victorian Sculpture, London 1982, pages 289-291
- Richard Ormond, Lord Leighton, London 1975, pages 93-94, 162-163
- Nicholas Penny, Catalogue of European Sculpture in the Ashmolean Museum, 1540 to the Present Day, Volume III British, Oxford, 1992, page 113
- Anon, Artists as Craftsmen. No.1. Sir Frederic Leighton, Bart., P.R.A., as a Modeller in Clay, The Studio, Vol 1, 1893, pp. 3-7
- Mrs. Russell Barrington, The Life, Letters and Work of Lord Leighton, George Allen, Ruskin House 1906 pp. 198-200
- Lavinia Handley-Read, Victorian and Edwardian Decorative Art, The Handley-Read Collection, Royal Academy, 1972, p.104 and 110, nos. F37-39
- Leonee and Richard Ormond, Lord Leighton, Yale University Press, New Haven and London 1975,pp.93-4, 162-3, pl.132
- Richard Ormond, Victorian High Renaissance, Manchester, Minneapolis and Brooklyn 1978/9, pp.119-121
- Susan Beattie, The New Sculpture, Yale University Press, New Haven and London 1983, pp.3, 30
Height 52.00 cm (20.47 inches)
Stock Code
Signed F Leighton 1877

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