Wrestlers [Thomas Eakins]

Saher Sohail

Contributor

You know when you were little and had the push-the-girl-into-the-sandbox approach to telling someone you like them? This Eakins painting is just a grown-up, gay version of that.

Though many have argued that this double portrait of two guys wrestling in a state of almost-complete undress is just another classic Eakins display of machismo and healthy sport. Sure, between two seemingly naked dudes. Nothing homoerotic about that. After all…what’s a sensual half nelson and a violent crotch-hold got to do with foreplay? Given his rumored sexuality and fascination with manly physical activities, many people presume that this could be a symbolic self-portrait of Eakins dualistic personality fighting it out.

This painting was offered to the National Academy of Design in May 1902, to seal the deal on Eakins’ membership with the academy. Before that, he had already submitted a much celebrated (and less edgy) self-portrait to the academy’s permanent collection. That one was all the rave, but Wrestlers wasn’t met with much enthusiasm. I’m guessing the lukewarm response had something to do with those aforementioned homoerotic vibes. As a result, the painting wasn’t displayed very often. Damn. Sorry, Eakins. 1902 was not a good year to out yourself.

But don’t give up on The Wrestlers just yet! After spending a few decades gathering dust in storage, the painting was finally sold to LACMA in 2006. The museum already owned a preliminary sketch for the work, and this became a seminal addition to their collection of American artists. It was also a good get for LAMCA as Wrestlers was the last painting Eakins’ did on the subject of the male nude or sports, which is too bad-we could always do with more hot naked dudes in museums.

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