Department of Art after 1800
|Medium, technique||oil on canvas|
252 x 198 cm
|Collection||Department of Art after 1800|
|On view||This artwork is on view at the permanent exhibition|
At the centre of Courbet’s life was the struggle for his artistic ideals and his political views. A great master of realist painting, he placed this battle at the focus of Wrestlers. The scene is set in Paris, at the racegrounds behind the Arc de Triomphe. In the foreground is a heated battle between the athletes, yet their forms give a sense of immobility and rigidity. Rather than motion, Courbet places the emphasis on the anatomical detail of strong but strained bodies, highlighting the tense muscles and swollen veins. The stands behind them are occupied by genteel onlookers – but it is strikingly apparent that the contest is for the benefit of the viewer, rather than the barely visible audience.
The restoration in 2009 revived Courbet’s vivid colours, thus making the difference in style (colours, proportions and brushwork alike) between the background and the protagonists in the foreground even more apparent. The difference derives partly from Courbet’s working method (figures were developed in the workshop and their environment was usually painted more freely) but also reveals that he wanted to draw attention not to the entertainments of the Parisian bourgeoisie but to the suffering, struggling masses. This political overtone refers to the social difficulties of the years following the rise to power of Napoleon III. Yet it was not this, but its full-blooded realism that prompted most critics at the 1853 Paris salon to condemn the work.
This record is subject to revision due to ongoing research.