"A fragment of an entire statue, the head, has remained intact, and is a remarkable example of Greek beauty. It has a charm from every point of view. The profile is no more lovely than the full face and every feature is lovely in itself. The car is small and well shaped, and the hair grows back from the low brow in small curves. It is of heroic size, the face measuring 8 1/4 inches. It is believed to be an original Greek work of the fourth century B.C., executed under the immediate influence of Praxiteles, and probably by a member of his school." (The New York Times, April 8, 1916). "No doubt any one who is well acquainted with Greek types and with the forms of modern athletes will observe that the Greek physical build is not identical with that of our days. The equable climate and the unstrained life of the young men produced something more rounded and fleshy than we see in the north. Our athletes are less harmoniously built, with more prominent sinews, more harsh and wiry in type. [...] The Apoxyomenos, a man scraping himself with a strigil, [...] is a work of the third century, after the artists had imported their knowledge of anatomy into their works, which had effects both good and bad." (Percy Gardner, "The Lamps of Greek Art" in The Legacy of Greece, 1921)
The athletes in ancient Greece exercised and competed naked and the oiling of the body was the key ritual in preparation for exercising or competing. After exercising or competing, before washing they would scrape the layer of oil, sand from the arena and sweat off their bodies with the strigi (a curved metal tool).
The oil vessel (aryballos) and the strigil became the symbolic equipment of the athlete, so the procedure of scraping the body (apoxyesis) was translated into the celebrated and much-loved depiction of the athlete in Greek art. The oil, stored in a small container, was poured drop by drop into the athlete’s hand and then rubbed into his body. The youth represents a prototype of many characteristics inherent in classical works. Portrayed in arrested motion, the figure is linear in pose. The hand holding the oil is raised above his head. The weight of the body is shifted slightly (a characteristic that is accentuated in other works and is referred to as the “contrapposto pose” in which the contour of the figure is reminiscent of an “S” curve). The Apoxyomenos is an athlete who has just completed his bout or his exercise and is shown at a moment of relaxation when he is totally intent on cleaning his body. This might perhaps be the depiction of a winner, or just of a general personification of “the athlete”. Several versions of The Apoxymenos are known, including a basalt torso in Castel Gandolfo. In showing the athlete tidying his strigil rather than scraping, other statues (incomplete in Boston and complete in Florence and Zagreb) differ from the more widely known version of the subject.