The painting exhibits traits that are less Impressionist and more decidedly Post-Impressionist in nature, a move away from the plein air method of direct study from nature to a more abstract style.
There is a concentration on abstract colour and shape, and the inclusion of elements of the symbolism he later developed.
The theme is taken from a Biblical story: Genesis 32:22-31, in which Jacob wrestles with a man through the night and in the morning comes to understand that he was an angel and a manifestation of God.
In the picture a group of Breton nuns in full regalia stand around a broad red ground upon which two figures are grappling in the middle distance.
The meaning of the picture is ambiguous, the sense of who is experiencing the vision unclear.
Gauguin found inspiration in the Japanese wood block prints that had became widely available at the time. This can be seen in his use of broad areas of flat colour.
There is little shading on the forms to indicate modelling through the play of light, instead the interplay of flat colour is built up to form patterns with the dominant red of the ground accentuating the dynamic energy of the struggling wrestlers.
Gauguin’s fellow painter Emile Bernard claimed that the wrestling figures were directly influenced by his viewing of Hokusai’s ‘Sumo Wrestles’ and that the slanting form of the tree came from Van Gogh’s copy of Hiroshige’s ‘Plum Tree in Bloom’.
The composition is boldly divided by the darker ochre of the tree trunk, which arches diagonally across the centre, effectively separating the two components.
This device frames and highlights the wrestlers, distancing them from the witnesses, and indicating their chimerical nature.
The perspective is unconventional: the planes distorted and flattened, the space indistinct.
This is most noticeable among the kneeling figures along the left edge who are portrayed almost as pattern, and who appear distortedly large in comparison with the attendant calf, which again heightens the feeling of being witness to a vision.