Oval balls and cubist players
French paintings of rugby
in Sport and modernism in the visual arts in Europe, c. 1909–39
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The third chapter deals with the wholesale importation of a British team sport, rugby, into France. Led by Baron de Coubertin, the founder of the Olympics, who was the referee in the first French championship, its adoption by the French was a self-conscious response to defeat in the Franco–Prussian War. Choosing rugby over the more proletarian soccer, an haute-bourgeois and aristocratic elite played rugby at Paris’ most exclusive clubs, a moment reimagined by Henri Rousseau. But rugby could not be confined to these environs for long, and by the time of Delaunay’s The Cardiff Team, with its press photograph source, the sport was included alongside aeroplanes, the Eiffel Tower and advertising as a cipher of all that was modern in the Paris of 1913. Also on view at that year’s Salon des Indépendants was another picture of rugby, The Football Players, cementing the sport as a theme for salon cubism. During the First World War, rugby was celebrated by French nationalists as a sport that had trained its participants to become heroes on the battlefield. This, I surmise, is what led André Lhote to produce his cubist paintings of rugby during and after the conflict.

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