Tags for: The Art of Sport
  • Magazine Article
  • Collection

The Art of Sport

A look at the Olympics, athletes, and art in the galleries
July 27, 2016
Statuette of an Athlete

Bethany Corriveau Nord Fellow in Education


This summer, millions of people all over the world will cheer for the athletes in the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London. We will marvel at feats of strength and skill, root for our favorites, and watch proudly as our champions top the podium to take that coveted gold. We spectators have been inspired by the excitement, the competition, and the drama of sports for centuries—and so have artists.


Statuette of an Athlete 510–500 bc. Greece, Peloponnesus. Bronze (solid cast); h. 21.5 cm. John L. Severance Fund 2000.6


Want proof? Walk through the CMA galleries, where works dating all the way back to ancient Greece testify to our love of sport. In Statuette of an Athlete, a bronze javelin thrower from about 500 bc (on view in gallery 102), the artist depicts the grace, power, and skill of arete, the Greek ideal of excellence in athletics. Sporting competitions offered a way to attain this ideal, providing sculptors and painters with plenty of opportunities for inspiration. Although games took place at Delphi, Athens, Isthmia, and Nemea, the most prestigious were those held at Olympia to honor Zeus. Athletes—free Greek men only—competed in events including wrestling, running, and, of course, javelin throwing. As you may have surmised from looking at the Athlete, competitors did indeed do all this in the nude.

The ancient Olympics occurred every four years from 776 bc to ad 393, when the Christian emperor Theodosius I outlawed them as a pagan festival. Looking for a way to promote international cooperation and inspire young men and women to participate in sports, Pierre de Coubertin succeeded in reviving the Olympics at the end of the 19th century. In 1896, Athens welcomed athletes and fans to the first modern Olympic Games. Like the creator of Statuette of an Athlete, modern artists were also inspired by the Olympic competitors. In this summer’s exhibition Youth and Beauty: The Art of the American Twenties, you can see Paul Manship’s Spear Thrower from 1921, a work drawing on both Greek classical sculpture and the rising interest in fitness during the 1920s. Spear Thrower has a lot in common with Statuette of an Athlete, despite being made more than two millennia later. Both sculptures, with biceps and abs worthy of a Sports Illustrated cover, show the artist’s admiration for the athlete’s physical prowess and fit form.

Manship may also have been inspired by the excitement surrounding the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, resumed after cancellation during World War I. (Although Manship’s Spear Thrower is nude, competitors in this Olympics did have to wear clothes.) The 1920 games also marked the first time the official flag—five rings of blue, yellow, black, green, and red on a white field—flew above an Olympic stadium, a particularly poignant symbol of unity after years of war. Each participating country’s flag included at least one of these six colors, while the five rings represented participating continents (North and South America, Eurasia, Africa, and Australia).


Wrestlers in a Circus

Wrestlers in a Circus 1909. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (German, 1880– 1938). Oil on canvas; 107.5 x 121 cm. Contemporary Collection of The Cleveland Museum of Art and Bequest of William R. Valentiner 1966.49 


Nearly a century later, these five rings have become as much a fixture of the Olympics as certain sports. Like discus and javelin throwing, wrestling is a particularly enduring event, contested in both the ancient and modern Olympics. Before the development of professional wrestling in modern times, vaudeville shows, circuses, and music halls often included bouts as part of the entertainment. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Wrestlers in a Circus from 1909 (going back on view in the east wing in August) explores the sport in another venue. Rules for wrestling varied widely, so Kirchner’s athletes may not have wrestled in quite the same way as Olympic athletes. And Kirchner’s style is also very different from the works we’ve already seen. These athletes are masses of color without much in the way of distinct physical features. Are they fit? You can’t really tell, and it doesn’t really matter. Instead, Kirchner shows us what it’s like to watch: looking at the vibrant colors and choppy brushstrokes, you get a sense of the fast-paced intensity of a match. 

Unlike wrestling, some of the Olympic sports represented in the galleries are purely modern additions. Swimming has been included at every modern Olympics, with four events in 1896 growing to 34 planned for 2012. Youth and Beauty includes a photograph by Edward Steichen of silver medalist Agnes Geraghty, who swam breaststroke in the 1924 and 1928 Olympics. During the 1920s, swimmers like Geraghty provided opportunity to depict both health and physical fitness, as artists were also inspired by increasingly revealing fashions in swimwear over the course of the decade. Although the hallmarks of her sport are there—she’s posed on a diving board in a wet swimsuit—Geraghty in “bathing beauty” mode is as much glamorous as she is athletic. 


The Biglin Brothers Turning the Stake

The Biglin Brothers Turning the Stake 1873. Thomas Eakins (American, 1844–1916). Oil on canvas; 117x 167 cm. Hinman B. Hurlbut Collection 1984.1927 


Rowing is also a long-standing part of the modern Olympics, although the event at the very first modern games in 1896 was canceled due to stormy weather. At the end of the 19th century, the sport enjoyed enormous popularity, as you can see from the fans lined up on the shore in Thomas Eakins’s The Biglin Brothers Turning the Stake from 1873. The painting depicts a world championship that took place in May 1872 on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, at the moment John and Barney Biglin turn their boat to head back toward the finish line. Eakins, interested in depicting the human form as accurately as possible, paid special attention to the rowers’ arms as they drive their oars through the water. Looking at the Biglin brothers, you can easily imagine yourself in the crowd on the bank, cheering them to victory. On July 27, similar crowds will gather for the opening ceremonies in London, eagerly anticipating feats of strength, skill, and athleticism. Can’t wait to see how artists will be inspired by these Olympians? Get a taste of the action here.

Please, just remember that spectators also are required to wear clothes. 


Cleveland Art, July/August 2012