Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1891, this is a marble version of Leighton's first and most important sculpture. When the original bronze appeared at the RA in 1877, the year before Leighton became President, it made an overwhelming impression. Critics immediately recognised that it marked a watershed in British sculpture, signalling the end of bland neoclassicism and introducing a much more vigorous and naturalistic style. Edmund Gosse, in an important article on modern British sculpture published in the Art Journal in 1894, wrote of its 'startling novelty...here was something far more vital and nervous than the soft following of Flaxman dreamed of; a series of surfaces, varied and appropriate, all closely studied from nature...attitudes and expressions so fresh and picturesque...This, in short, was something wholly new.'
Leighton was still making classical references, most obviously to the Laocoön, the famous Hellenistic group in the Vatican, but it is significant that this sculpture had profoundly influenced Michelangelo, who had indeed been present when it was excavated in 1506. The real sources of inspiration not only for Leighton himself but for the whole New Sculpture movement which grew out of his revolutionary approach, were Italian Renaissance and contemporary French. Leighton was a friend of Jules Dalou, the great French sculptor who had fled to London at the time of the Paris Commune, and it was Dalou who urged him to execute the Athlete on a monumental scale.
Leighton began work on the sculpture in 1874. The idea apparently came to him when he was modelling figures for his painting The Daphnephoria, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1876 (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight), although the motif of the heroic male nude in violent action had occurred in earlier paintings, notably Hercules wrestling with Death for the Body of Alcestis (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut), a mastepiece of 1869-71. The model for the figure was Angelo Colorossi, one of the most popular of the Italian male models who found such ready employment in London in the wake of the classical revival. The modelling was carried out in the studio of Leighton's protégé Thomas Brock, who helped with some of the more mechanical aspects of the daunting task. However, Leighton was careful to stress that 'the artistic individuality of the work (was) wholly mine'.
Leighton's plans suffered a setback when it was discovered that the proportions had been miscalculated in enlarging the figure from the original sketch. It was impossible to correct the mistake, and he had to begin again. This may help to explain why the work was so long in gestation, although it should be remembered that he was also working on the Daphnephoria, an enormous picture of great complexity, at the same time.
At all events, the result was a resounding success. 'Whether we look at the action or the anatomical details of this figure' wrote the art critic on the Times, 'we must at once admit it to a place among the few great English works in bronze or marble.' Even the Art Journal, not usually the most perceptive of organs, perceived Leighton's purpose, describing the figure as 'nobly classic in feeling, yet full of such realistic detail as modern anatomical knowledge demands'. Leighton must have been particularly gratified by the response of fellow artists. Dalou, who had helped to inspire the piece, sent warm congratulations, and the statue was bought by the Chantrey Trustees for £2,000.
Further endorsement of the Athlete's significance followed. The Leicester Galleries published an edition of small bronze replicas, bringing it within the range of the modest collector and the domestic setting, while the gold medal which the sculpture was awarded at the Exposition Universelle Paris in 1878 laid the foundations of its international reputation.
The present version was another sign of this phenomenon. Its history cannot be told better than it was by Richard Ormond in the catalogue of Victorian High Renaissance, a ground-breaking exhibition devoted to aspects of classicism and the New Sculpture mounted in 1978-9; so we make no apologies for quoting his account here:
In 1887, Carl Jacobsen, the owner of the Carlsberg brewery in Copenhagen, approached Leighton to commission a marble replica of the Athlete for the museum he had founded in 1882. The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, which Jacobsen gave to the city in 1888, contains great collections of classical, Egyptian and nineteenth-century sculpture, and a number of important paintings. Jacobsen was keen to possess contemporary works in marble, and he had singled out the Athlete as one of the best examples of the modern British school. Writing to Jacobsen on 30 November 1887, Leighton expressed his gratitude for the commission, conveyed through the Danish painter Laurits Tuxen, but pointed out the problems: 'The Athlete is composed for and executed in bronze - in marble it would not have the necessary stability - it would almost certainly break off at the Ancles (sic).' In a second letter, of 16 Decmeber 1887, he again tried to dissuade Jacobsen from pursuing the marble idea: 'In answer to your objection that the marble would be an original & the bronze not I would say that the bronze would be made from my original model & would therefore be to the full as much an original as the one bought here by the Nation - whereas in the marble other hands intervene & only the finishing touches are given by the Artist altho' he supervises the work from the first. - that it is possible to introduce the support there is no doubt, the stem of the tree would come behind the right heel & throw a branch across to the back of the thigh.
Jacobsen persisted, and on 2 January 1888, Leighton wrote to say that he would 'bow to your decision & will take steps to obtain a block at once...(I must model a stem to adapt the statue to the new material before the carving is begun).' By the summer Leighton had obtained a block, and in a letter of 24 July 1888, he told Jacobsen that the roughing out had already begun. On 8 August Leighton wrote again to acknowledge receipt of a cheque for £300 (half the fee), and commented that the work shall 'be proceeded with all due speed.'
Most of the carving of the statue was carried out by Frederick Pomeroy (1856-1924), a young sculptor then at the start of his career. Like the earlier model for the bronze, the statue was actually executed in the studio of Thomas Brock, a close friend and a successful sculptor; (and) it was Brock who saw to the details of transporting the finished work from London to Copenhagen. Writing to Jacobsen on 8 December 1890, after a long interval, Leighton apologised for the delay in finishing the sculpture: 'I shall when it is completed have devoted nearly three months of my own labour to the marble, which, as you are experienced in such matters, you will know it more than the majority of sculptors give to the carving of their statues; - I expect that in a month the "Athlete" will be finished if all goes well.' In the same letter he asked permission to show the statue at the Royal Academy, a request that was readily granted.
Writing a year later to his patron, on 29 July 1891 that is to say, after the marble had been seen at the RA, Leighton told him that the statue had been received, 'with much sympathy by the public.' Criticism was polite if a little muted - the bronze after all was well known. F.G. Stephens in the Athenaeum was as loyal as ever: 'The character of the material demanded a higher degree of finish; but the new version lacks none of the characteristic vigour of the bronze one, and the artist has modelled it exquisitely.' Claude Phillips in the Magazine of Art voiced a more general view when he wrote of 'the carefully studied, if too anxiously shown, muscular structure of the parts which so much detracts from the unity and vitality of the whole.' Jacobsen himself was apparently delighted with the statue, for Leighton told his sister in a letter of 3 October 1891, that 'in his [Jacobsen's] opinion it is one of the most important statues of modern times.'
The marble was de-accessioned by the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in 1974, and has since been in private collections in London and New York. It was Jacobsen's practice to commission portraits of the artists represented in his collection, to be displayed near their productions. when he asked for one of Leighton, Leighton recommended Brock, who had executed a bronze bust of the President as his RA diploma work. In due course a marble version was sent to Copenhagen, but this too has been sold. It is now in an English private collection.