Top 10 Depictions of Sports and Athletes in Art History

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Individual dreams, collective efforts. The trials of athletes have inspired some of the most beautiful and expressive pieces in art history. As sporting competitions have evolved over time, so too have the means of artistic documentation. Lofty’s art history experts compiled this list of ten pinnacle artworks capturing sports, games, and physical culture. Game on!

The Belvedere Torso

Belvedere_Torso_Musei_Vaticani Image: The Belvedere Torso, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

This marble torso in the collection of the Vatican Museums cuts a powerful figure – even though it is missing most of its limbs. The sculpture bears an unknown signature, and historians dispute whether it is an original Hellenistic work from ancient Greece or a Roman copy. The Belvedere Torso is widely regarded as one of the greatest depictions of the human body through sculpture.

George Stubbs (1724-1806), Turf, with Jockey up, at Newmarket, ca. 1765

George_Stubbs_-_Turf,_with_Jockey_up,_at_Newmarket_-_Google_Art_Project (1) Image: Detail of George Stubbs, Turf, with Jockey up, at Newmarket, ca. 1765, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

George Stubbs is celebrated as the godfather of all horse painters. He was born in Liverpool and made his career in London after studying dissections and drawings of horses in Rome. Stubbs published his book The Anatomy of the Horse in 1766. His sporting paintings perfectly capture the musculature and movement of horses.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Yachts Sailing in the Solent, c. 1827

jmw-turner Image: Joseph Mallord William Turner, Yachts Sailing in the Solent, From Isle of Wight Sketchbook, c. 1827 Source: Tate Museum

 

J.M.W. Turner began his career as a colorist of sporting prints. He ranks among England’s most original painters. Turner had a determined obsession to render nature accurately. According to historians, he once literally tied himself to a ship’s mast so he could improve his painting technique by viewing the ocean waves from a close vantage point. Now that’s what we call an extreme sport!

Henri Rosseau (1844-1910), The Football Players (Les joueurs de football), 1908

rousseau Image: Detail of Henri Rousseau, The Football Players (Les joueurs de football), 1908, Source: The Guggenheim Museum, New York

 

Henri Rousseau painted this slyly humorous picture of four clown-like rugby players in 1908. The year marked the first international rugby match, which was played in Paris between England and France. The blue and white players are smiling gleefully as they sprint toward the goal, while they red players appear powerless, unable to stop them from scoring.

Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916), Dinamismo di un foot-baller (Dynamism of a Soccer Player), 1913

U.Boccioni-Dynamizm-piłkarza-1913-Nowy-Jork1 Image: Detail of Umberto Boccioni, Dinamismo di un foot-baller (Dynamism of a Soccer Player), 1913, Source: www.italianfuturism.org

 

The Italian Futurist artist Umberto Boccioni transformed football players (known as soccer players in the United States) into this expressive and aggressively abstracted image. To members of the politically oriented Futurist movement, athletes and team sports represented the progressive avant-garde of human acheivement.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Two Women Running on The Beach (The Race), 1922

two-women-running-on-the-beach-the-race-1922 Image: Pablo Picasso, Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race), 1922, Source: WikiArt

 

Picasso produced this vision of female athleticism in 1922, a decade when women were taking a more prominent role in society. He painted these two young women sprinting hand in hand along a Mediterranean beach. Their robust figures, floating hair, and uncovered breasts lend this image a sense of optimism and expansive freedom.

Willi Baumeister (1889-1995), Female Runner II, 1925

female-runner-ii-1925 Image: Willi Baumeister, Female Runner II, 1925, Source: WikiArt

 

The German Artist Willi Baumeister produced this female runner as part of a set of images called Signs of the Modern. At the time, society was beginning to accept the fact that women could compete with men in recreational and competitive sports.

George Bellows (1882-1925), Dempsey and Firpo, 1924

bellows Image: George Bellows, Dempsey and Firpo, 1924, Source: Whitney Museum of American Art

 

The artist George Bellowshad been an outstanding athlete in his youth. He is known for his paintings of boxing scenes. This dramatic representation of a brutal fight serves as a document of the roaring twenties, when boxing had only recently become a legal spectator sport in the United States.

LeRoy Neiman (1927-2012), The DiMaggio Cut, 1998

neiman Image: LeRoy Neiman, The DiMaggio Cut, 1998, screenprint, signed by Joe DiMaggio and the artist

 

LeRoy Neiman was a celebrity artist known for his images of athletes. He was the official artist of the Olympic Games five times, played a part in the Rocky films, and also created the Femlin cartoon character frequently featured in Playboy magazine. Neiman’s vivid acrylic paintings feature brisk brushwork and dynamic, bright colors.

Harold E. Edgerton (1903-1990), Serve (Gussie Morgan), c. 1949

edgerton Image: Harold E. Edgerton, Serve (Gussie Morgan), c. 1949, Source: Edgerton Digital Collections

 

Harold Edgerton (1903 – 1990) was a professor of electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He captured this image, which divides the movement of a tennis serve into 50 segments, using a hand-operated camera equipped with multiple flashes. Strobed images like this allowed scientists their first chance to study an athlete’s precise physical control.

Featured Image: An image captured by Etienne-Jules Marey using the photographic gun, c. 1882. Source: MIT.