Etty exhibited a composition entitled the Wrestlers at the Society of Arts retrospective of his career in 1849 and also produced a number of life-studies invoving two men wrestling. Daniel Maclise recalled that it was Etty's practice to group models together in the life-class of the Academy 'a composition of two or three Gladiators. Sometimes, a dark man ... introduced, for picturesque contrast' (Gilchrist, The Life of William Etty, R.A., 1855, p.58). In the catalogue entry to a version of the composition in the York City Art Gallery (oil on millboard, 27 x 21 in.), which may be the picture which Etty exhibited in 1849, when it was exhibited in the The Victorian Nude exhibition at the Tate Alison Smith commented:
'The Wrestlers or Pancrastinae was one of the Antique sculptures probationers were set to draw from to gain admission to the Royal Academy schools. At the same, artists were examining the physiques of living men as modern examples of manly perfection, capable of rivalling the Antique ... The standing white model in this picture may be the bearded John Wilson, mentioned in the Art Union (sept. 1841, p.160). Etty also appreciated dark skinned models ... while the white wrestler here appears dominant, as if confirming racial stereotypes, the figures are in fact equally positioned in a well-matched struggle' (Exposed. The Victorian Nude, catalogue to the exhibition at the Tate, London, 1 November 2001 - 27 January 2002, p. 4).
Dennis Farr lists three versions of the composition; in the collection of John Woodward (oil on millboard; 20 x 15 1/4 in.); in the Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts (oil on linen laid on panel; 19 5/8 x 20½ in.); and in the City Art Gallery, York (oil on millboard; 27 x 21 in.) which he dates to circa 1840 (D. Farr, William Etty, London, 1958, p. 163, nos. 136-8).