OIL PAINTING: The Wrestlers, 1840
In 1849 Etty exhibited The Wrestlers at the Society of Arts retrospective of his career. He also produced two other versions of the composition, plus a number of life-studies involving two men in action. It is not clear whether this picture can be identified with that exhibited in 1849 or whether it is an 'academy' study with draperies added at a later date, possibly after the studio sale following the artist's death. Etty's penchant for staging tableaux vivants in the life-class of the Academy, adds to the difficulty of distinguishing between his studies and finished works. Daniel Maclise recalled Etty's practice of grouping models together:
"a composition of two or three Gladiators. Sometimes, a dark man... was introduced, for picturesque contrast".
The standing white model in this picture may be the bearded John Wilton, mentioned in the Art Union (Sept. 1841). Etty also appreciated dark-skinned models and earlier in his career painted the famous Wilson, admired by Haydon for his 'perfect antique figure'. Particularly around the time of abolition, blacks tended to be viewed as primitive noble savages, uncorrupted by modern civilisation, yet were also considered physically and mentally backward. While the white wrestler here appears dominant, as if confirming existing racial stereotypes, the figures are in fact equally positioned in a well-matched struggle. It is also likely, as Maclise observed, that Etty was seeking dramatic pictorial effect through rich contrasts of colour.