An Athlete wrestling with a Python was Leighton's first sculpture and made an overwhelming impression when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1877, the year before he became President. It was widely recognised as marking a watershed in British sculpture, signalling the end of bland neoclassicism and introducing a much tougher and more naturalistic style inspired by Renaisssance and contemporary French examples. Its significance for the so-called New Sculpture cannot be overstressed. The work was immediately purchased for the Chantrey Bequest, and when it appeared at the Exposition Universelle in Paris the following year it won Leighton a gold medal. A marble replica, commissioned by Carl Jacobsen, the owner of the Carlsberg brewery in Copenhagen, and largely carved by Frederic Pomeroy, was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1891. The Leicester Galleries published a reduced replica in two sizes in an edition of bronze casts.
None of the original wax or clay models for the Athlete appears to have survived, but there are several plaster casts of a lost sketch. This differs from the final work in the relation of the python to the athlete's legs and the base. A number of the casts were presented by Leighton to his friends. One in the Tate Gallery was given to Alphonse Legros, and one in the Royal Academy to John Pettie. A third is in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The present version was given to George Clausen in 1895. Clausen was twenty-two years younger than Leighton and, as a leading exponent of British impressionism, much influenced by Millet and Bastien-Lepage, poles apart from him in style. He had also been a critic of the Academy under Leighton's presidency; in a letter to The Times of 7 August 1886 he had joined Holman Hunt and Walter Crane in advocating a more representative exhibition of national art. Despite all this, Leighton had the highest regard for Clausen. He was a generous patron and encourager of many young artists, helping to promote the work of Lavery, Furse and the Newlyn School, and personally commissioning drawings from Beardsley, Laurence Housman and Ricketts. But, as the Ormonds point out in their monograph, 'of the younger group of artists, George Clausen was the one he probably admired the most. He tried to buy a watercolour of a white horse from Clausen in 1893, and when that failed asked the artist to keep him in mind for something similar; he eventually acquired a small oil landscape. He was no doubt largely responsible for the Chantrey purchase of Clausen's Girl at the Gate (Tate Gallery), and he continued to regard Clausen and Sargent as the two great hopes of British painting (Lord Leighton, 1975, p.106). Could this be the meaning behind the mysterious phrase 'O captain, my captain' (borrowed from the Walt Whitman apostrophising Abraham Lincoln) in the inscription under the base?
Despite his criticism of the Royal Academy, Clausen showed there from 1876 and was elected an Associate in 1895, a year before Leighton's death. In the catalogue of Joanna Barnes's exhibition (loc.cit.) the plaster is said to have been given to him on this occasion, but it is possible that Leighton exchanged it for Clausen's 'small oil landscape.' Three letters from Leighton to Clausen concerning his aquisition of a work by the younger artist are in the Royal Academy's archive, but they shed no light on the matter beyond confirming that the landscape was in Leighton's possession by November 1895, nine months after he gave Clausen the plaster sketch.