From its first appearance at the Royal Academy in 1877 The Athlete was recognised as a major work of sculpture. It is imbued with antiquity (the Laocoön is the obvious source) but also the beginning of something quite new, heralding the New Sculpture movement.
The statue represents a youth of superb physique locked in a life and death struggle with a snake. The model is thought to be Angelo Colorosi, a leading figure in the Italian colony of professional male models. The male nude in action was a theme Leighton explored in his paintings of the early 1870s - such as Daedalus and Icarus and Hercules wrestling with death. Leighton had little experience of sculpture and the execution of such a powerful and dynamic design was undertaken in the studio of his protégé, Thomas Brock, who provided significant technical expertise. That it was the first of only three sculptures that Leighton fully completed makes it all the more impressive.
The original life-size bronze version is now in the collections of Tate Britain, on loan to the Victoria & Albert Museum. In 1887 Carl Jacobsen, owner of the famous Carlsberg brewery in Copenhagen commissioned a marble version (deaccessioned in 1974 and sold from the Forbes Collection, Christie's, London, 19 February 2003, lot 28). Bronze reductions such as the present lot were published in two sizes by the Leicester Galleries, though rarely appear on the market. The Athlete was the icon of the New Sculpture movement and was considered exemplary of British Art long into the 20th century, as evidenced by this cast being gifted to Princess Mary by the members of the Royal Academy of Arts in February 1922 - the month of her marriage to Henry Lascelles, 6th Earl of Harewood (1882-1947).