Depictions of the nude between 1750 and 1920 underwent many variations of approach pertaining to genre or other social message (and causing controversy in the process). This period saw its major movements in Rococo, Neo-Classical, Romanticism, Realism, Impressionism and Post Impressionism. The chosen representatives of ‘the nude’ for these periods are, Boucher, David, Gericault, Courbet, Manet, Degas, Cezanne and Picasso. Attitudes towards the nude and its portrayalregarding the following examples gradually altered throughout this period though the artists themselves usually retained their notoriety during their own lifetimes.
The nude was already a traditional and established artistic subject however the interest is largely to be found in the importance of the messages that these artists intended to convey and the notoriety that they often achieved in the process. Influences such as poetry, mythology, religion, social comment and war and the contrasts in the reasons they chose depict the nude across each given period had surprising and often extreme or shocking effects upon their audience. The most scandalous images through the period however belonged to the genre based depictions of the nude as these were generally greeted with outrage and publically criticised and condemned. Interestingly though, these same works often inspired substantial but private commissions from wealthy collectors and members of the Aristocracy.
Other considerations when viewing the following images relate to how the nude was treated technically. Some of the following examples were very academic and traditional whilst othershad a clearly passionate and painterlystyle and some had been cleverly abstracted.
Franchois Boucher (1703-1770), a French Rococo painter, engraver and designer was arguably the most prominent painter of the middle of the 18th century as his patrons were largely derived from the wealthy French aristocracy. Boucher’s popularity rose to dizzying heights after his position as favoured portrait painter to Madame de Pompadour (who was King Louis XV’s famous mistress), was secured. His most preferred figurative works during his own lifetimereflect thedecorative excesses of the Rococo period, ‘gay and superficial, Boucher’s artful fantasies were the mirrors in which his patrons, the French aristocracy, saw the cherished reflections of their own ornamental decadence’ (Gardner 1986, p.781).
Franchois Boucher (1703-1770) – Cupid a Captive 1754
These (then modern) conventional and graceful nudes, such as Cupid a Captive (1754) were largely inspired by mythology and are great in number. In this example, academic considerations pertaining to compositional arrangements are clearly evident in the fleshy pyramid of females and infants against a cool leafy backdrop. Here, we can see that generally, nudity is revealed by the drapery whilst maintaining a level of concealment by the dynamic positioning of figures, drapery and other crisscrossing diagonals.
These earlier examples of Boucher’s depictions of the nude were somewhat customary and accepted and were to some extent, fashionable as other frescoes of this style indeed adorned many of the prestigious and public buildings such as the wall and ceiling paintings in the Basilica at Ottobeuren.
The astonishment of the general public and aristocracy respectively was paramount therefore when Boucher exhibited his most controversial painting, L’Odalisque(c. 1749) for which he received much criticism. His most ardent critic was none other than, French Philosopher Denis Diderot (1713-84), who claimed he was ‘prostituting his own wife’. As Diderot was chief editor and writer of the Encyclopedie (1751-1772), he is attributed with (as defined by ChilversThe Oxford Dictionary of Art 1997, p. 161) ‘shaping the rationalist and humanitarian ideals of the Age of Enlightenment’. Diderot’s influence was therefore paramount and he was enjoying a huge cultural following at the time of his afore mentioned commentas was the extent of success of his Encyclopedie during this time. A fact further emphasised by his consistent historical reference as Leader of the Enlightenment. It is no surprise that this criticism was unrelenting as Boucher did not cease painting genre works (often with his family members as models) however his notoriety still earned him favour with wealthy private collectors and commissions ensued.
It should be noted however that Diderot maintained ‘that our ideas of beauty arise from practical everyday experience of beautiful things, based on a sentiment for the ‘conformity of the imagination with the object’. He regarded taste as a faculty acquired through repeated experience of apprehending the true or the good through immediate impression which renders it beautiful’ (Chilvers p. 161). This further example of Diderot’s artistic ideals can be seen as a contradiction of his earlier statement regarding Boucher’s L’Odalisqueas a prostitution of his wife, as here he acknowledges the beauty that may arise from practical everyday experienceand what could be more practical than the enjoyment and acknowledgement of a wife’s beauty? However it is not a common approach to pay homage towards ones wife in this manner and could have otherwise been achieved in a more subdued pose.
Further to this, the figure is representative of a contemporary woman who is (half) dressed and surrounded by everyday objects and of which was the cause of the original scandal. His other comment regarding the effect of a visual repeated experience to apprehend the beauty of an artwork, may well invite a rebuttal suggesting that Diderot, may have, over time, come to appreciate the work for its inherent skill and move beyond his ‘immediate impression’ to a more unemotional conclusion.
This paintings provocative nature still employs the drapery of his earlier paintings in concealment however the locations of concealment differ most completely. Its message was not derived from any mythological or religious inspiration but instead, simply displays his model, flushed of cheek both facial and buttocks in a reclining position that is somewhat invitational to the viewer. This arrangement of the models pose results in a confrontational image that is either applauded as brave honesty or condemned as brazen vulgarity depending greatly upon the viewer’s predisposition toward such imagery.
Franchois Boucher (1703-1770) – L’Odalisque c.1749
Boucher was not daunted by the reactions of the public and intellectual critics such as Diderot and shortly after paintedMarie-Louise O’Murphy(c. 1752)in a similar pose. Boucher’s depictions of the nude are painted with a clear sensuality and charm of which continue to capture attention well into the 21st century. This enduring example of a Rococo period nude is extremely successful as a challenging portrait in engaging with the viewer, whatever Boucher’s original intention.Further achievements regarding the depictions of the nude during this period were to be made by both his contemporaries and his pupils, most notably, Jean Honore Fragonard (1732-1806).
Jacques Louis David (1748-1825) – Intervention of the Sabine Women 1799
Jacques Louis David (1748-1825), of the Neo-Classical Period, finds an entirely different approach at creating public interest from Boucher’s more intimate paintings. David was politically entangled and tremendously disillusioned with the contemporary events of the French Revolution. He found himself incarcerated in 1795 due to his position as chief painter during the resultant political events.
It was during his incarceration that David’s philosophies were revaluated and his neo-classical style and themes refined all of which manifested in the Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799). As an allegorical painting, this painting depicts a real event and the moment of the Sabine’s attempt at rescuing the women after they have been abducted by neighbouring Romans.
The relevance of this image is in David’s intention to advocate the reconciliation of the French people after the revolution. The women are intervening in an attempt to end the bloodshed and in particular, Hersilia, the central female is placing herself between the King of Rome, her husband and the King of the Sabine’s, her father.
Uniquely, a mirror was used in the exhibition of this painting as an interactive prop for viewing the women spaced in and around the central character which allowed visitors to participate in the crowded scene because figures were life sized. This meant that a woman viewing the painting could easily find herself within the painting. As society women posed for David, the political meaning was not lost, a fact that was further emphasised as the faces belonged to well known and respected ladies.
The similarity of intention for both David and Theodore Gericault (1791-1824) in enlightening the viewer and making political comment cannot be ignored coupled with their mutual distaste for contemporary politics. Gericault painted, The Raft of Medusa in 1818-19 and it was arguably the most ambitious undertaking of his career. This work depicts both the Neo-Classical and Romantic painterly styles and therefore acts as a bridging image between the two fundamentally important art historical periods. As an allegory, ‘The Medusa’ relates to an actual (then) modern event of political scandal and of which comments upon the restoration of the monarchy after Napoleon for which Gericault was opposed.
Theodore Gericault (1791-1824) – The Raft of the Medusa 1818-19
The tragic event involved the government vessel ‘The Medusa’ which had lost course off the West African coast. There were originally hundreds of men on board however only a handful of survivors were eventually rescued after days on a makeshift raft. He viewed the restoration of the monarchy as akin to the disaster upon this vessel and this relationship was not lost on his intended audience.
Gericault spent a year in Italy,prior to embarking upon this masterwork,researching and sketching the nude and considering the nude as a tool in its particular ability to evoke raw responsive emotions. He also interviewed the actual survivors of the shipwreck, examined corpses in the morgue, and commissioned a replica of the raft to be built. This can all be seen in the dramatic treatment of ‘the moment when the men on the raft first glimpse the rescue ship. From the prostrate bodies of the dead and dying in the foreground, the composition is built up to a rousing climax in the group that supports the frantically waving Negro, so that the forward surge of the survivors parallels the movement of the raft itself’ (Janson 1970, p.482).
The Raft of Medusa, as a link in the visual chain between Neo-Classical and Romantic painting, is depicted through the dramatic staged lighting and posturing of figures combined with the surging movement of the wavesalongside the treatment of flesh and water respectively. It was hugely successful in Gericault’s attempt at creating a recognisably allegorical image and masterwork respectively.
Realism followed the Romantic Period and is applied to a movement in 19th century (particularly French) art of which is largely considered a rebellion against the more traditional, mythological, religious and historical subjects that largely preceded this movement. Realism shows a preference to more imperfect and natural scenes of modern life.
The leader of the Realist movement was Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), who said ‘painting is essentially a concrete art and must be applied to real and existing things’ (Chilvers 1997, P. 463). Courbet valued the role of the modern artist with a conviction that he must rely on his own direct experience “I cannot paint an angel because I have never seen one” words that one can surmise may easily offend, cause scandal or be frankly rebellious but do however greatly add to his appeal as it suggests a resistance to conformity.
Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) – Interior of My Studio, a Real Allegory Summing Up Seven Years of My Life as an Artist 1854-55
Courbet exhibited his own privately organized showing of paintings that were denied entry into the Paris Exposition of 1855 and which would otherwise have hung alongside works by Ingres and Delacroix(1798-1863) who were French Neo-Classical and Romantic figure heads respectively and both of whom painted predominantly historical, political, allegorical and religious images. This exhibition was highly esteemed due to Ingres and Delacroix being artistic adversaries.
Courbet published a ‘Manifesto of Realism’ by way of publicising his own event and the main attraction was entitled Interior of My Studio, a Real Allegory Summing Up Seven Years of My Life as an Artist(1854-55). It has been suggested that the literary play on ‘Real Allegory’ may allude to the inclusion of existing identifiable characters and promote a closer study of the juxtaposition of figures in relation to the central artist and the principal spectators amounting to just two. Further to this, the length of the title of the work hints at a sense of humour regardless of his particular attachment to the work considering its size and consummate skill in the detailing.
The small boy is possibly representative of ‘the innocent eye’ and the nude model may be a symbol of Nature ‘or that undisguised Truth which he proclaimed the guiding principle of his art (note the emphasis on the clothing she has just taken off)’. The three central figures are illuminated by the only unobstructed radiance whereas the lateral figures are in partial and more mysterious lighting ‘to underline the contrast between the artist-the active creator-and the world around him that waits to be brought to life’(Janson1970, p. 492).
The portraits on the right are passively posed and include the Parisian aspect of Courbet’s existence such as his contemporary intellectuals, clients and critics. They are not engaged with him as are his two most direct observers but are instead either conversing amongst themselves or simply immersed in thought. The other group on the left consist of ‘the people’ from his home in Ornans. Here we see a mother and child, a priest, a Jewish man, workers, peasants and hunters.
Courbet’s studio was his largest undertaking and the first of many representations of the nude to follow all of which were essentially underappreciated by the general public of his day. The general consensus was that his confrontational depictions of the nude such as Woman with White Stockings (1861), Nude Reclining Woman (1862), Sleep (1866) and The Origin of the World (1866), succeeded in establishing him as a notorious and rebellious artist of the time. However it should be noted, these works did earn him healthy commissions.
Édouard Manet (1832-83) was particularly inspired by Courbet’s Studioand its brazen representation of the nude amongst so many clothed participants. In his The Luncheon on the Grass (1862-63), the warmth and creamy tones of the woman’s flesh against the black and grey of the men’s clothing, combined with the fact it is set in the outdoors, was to become far more controversial and indeed a revolutionary image.
Edouard Manet (1832-83) – The Luncheon on the Grass 1862-3
Manetwas a French painter and graphic artist and is known as bridging the gap between that of Realism and Impressionism both visually and in spirit. His courageous intentions toward modern subjects earned him a reputation as an artistic rebel not unlike Courbet and indeed saw him as one of very few artists of the 19th century that were brave enough to tackle genre painting.
The exhibition of his masterworks, The Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeunersurl’herbe)and Olympia(1862-3) provoked great controversy and Chilver’s Oxford Dictionary of Art (1997, p. 345 states, ‘Manet reluctantly found himself acquiring a reputation as leader of the avant-garde. He was a respected and admired member of the group of young Impressionists, including Monet, Renoir, Bazille, Sisley and Cezanne’.
Manet’s Luncheon is in stark contrast to historically and classically painted depictions of the nude that are mythological in subject such as AlexandreCabanel’s (1823-29); Birth of Venus 1863 of which received critical acclaim, whilst Manet’s was deemed as causing a scandal. It was exhibited in the same year as Manet’s Luncheon but as its subject is the mythical sea-birth of the goddess of love, it was considered as daring yet ‘so tastefully done that it avoided offence’ (Forsythe 1996, p.24).
Alexandre Cabanel’s (1823-29) – Birth of Venus 1863
Perhaps it is due to Manet inclusion of the discarded clothes in the foreground of the composition making the spectator aware that they are gazing upon a girl who is not just ‘nude’ but has indeed just undressed. This combined with her naturally seated position that is quite devoid of any languorous abandon ‘on the grass with two young men; she has presumably been bathing in the nearby stream from which another girl emerges in her shift. The young men are not gods or sprites, but ordinary men in their everyday clothes and modern clothes at that – jackets, trousers and boots such as might be worn by any respectable gentleman visiting the PalaisD’Industrie with his respectable wife’ (J Forsythe P.23).
The comparison between that of Manet’s and Cabanel’s depictions of the nude are yet further indication of the ability of a modern subject painting engendering shock and outrage over that of its tremendously erotic (though supposedly chaste) mythological inspired counterpart. Indeed The Birth of Venus earned Cabanel many commissions by the emperor Napoleon III (1808-73) who claimed that Manet’s was ‘an offence against modesty’.
Interestingly though, years after the completion and exhibition of Manet’s Luncheon, an art historian discovered its striking similarity to an engraving after Raphael (Marcantonio Raimondi, The Judgment of Paris detail c1520) from which ‘he borrowed its main outlines while translating the figures into modern terms. Had his contemporaries known this, the Luncheon would have seemed a rather less disreputable kind of outing to them’ (Janson1970, p.15). The source image depicts a group of classical Deities again a fact that if known, may have resulted in acceptance rather than indignity.
Edgar Degas (1834-1917) – The Tub, Pastel on Cardboard 1886
Edgar Degas (1834-1917) provided the art world with another cause for debate with his pastel drawing The Tub (1886) as like Boucher, David, Gericault, Courbet and Manet before him, he depicted a contemporary woman. This lady was obviously devoid of any artificial posturing and she was not masked through the representation of a goddess or coy nymph but instead is seen to be going about her bathing routine ‘in a matter of fact fashion, unconscious of any observer. Degas himself described it as being ‘as if you looked through a keyhole’, by which he also implied that there was no element of deliberate erotic display in what was seen’ (Mannering 1994, p. 69).
The influence of Japanese colour prints along with photography are apparent in the compositional choices that Degas was making during this time. The evident Japanesequality here is in the ‘cut off’ objects upon the vanity or table top which results in an element of spontaneity, akin to a snapshot from an unfamiliar vantage point which gives it immense interest.
Degas was also fascinated with the portrayal of movement in his work which is a successful element here as the lady balances on her toe and sponges her back. This is achieved also through the vigorous treatment of the woman’s flesh and the directional strokes that are evident and purposefully unblended.
Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), a Post-Impressionist painter,represented bathers also however his were based lakeside and the similarity with Degas work was solely in the impact his series had upon the art world although Cezanne’s proved to be morerecognisable. The resultant waves that collided and were later discernible in modern or 20th century art were largely due to his use of the triangular shape in two dimensional compositional arts.
Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) – The Large Bathers 1898-1905
Of Cezanne’s The Bathers series, his The Large Bathers (1898-1905) was the most ambitious and fully realised. It was his innovative use of the traditionally incorporated triangle within the composition that was found to be revolutionary. Here we see Cezanne has framed the least interesting part of the landscape by the figures, trees and river of which combine to form this historically frequently used shape. ‘This picture was exhibited in the Autumn Salon of 1907, the same year of Pablo Picasso’s (1881-1973)Les Demoiselles D’ Avignon(1907)(Benicka 1980, p.88).
Another variation to the typical Renaissance pyramid can be seen in the apex of the largest pyramid, where the trees are yet to meet, which is outside of the visual plane. The smaller triangles as determined by the figure groupings, both right and left are arranged surprisingly regarding the size of the individual women and their placement results in disjointed triangles.
This strong and flat treatment of the female figures may, it has been suggested, be indicative of a ‘lifelong concern which has to do with Cezanne’s anxiety about women’ (Schapiro 1904, p 44) resulting in a triangle of constraint. However the flesh tones alongside the bluish landscape form a harmony throughout the painting where all the elements of the sky, water and vegetation somewhat merge.
Pablo Picasso’s (1881-1973) Les Demoiselles D’Avignon 1907
‘Commentators point to Cezanne’s monumental nudes in The Bathers series and the impact of African art on Western art as’ major influencesupon Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon.Pablo Picasso’s (1881-1973) nudes within their brothel setting however does outshine Cezanne’s Bathers in its effect upon the art world regarding his new level of reductionism and his ‘dislocation of faces’ being heralded as distinctly radical. Cubism was the inevitable outcome and Picasso brings this evaluation of figurative art to a close.
All of the discussed artists have made a lasting contribution to our understanding of the visual language regardless of their scandalous beginnings and can be celebrated for their honesty and integrity whatever their individual intent. The pervading discovery is in the fact that the most impactful were not representations of myth or religion but were instead that of genre and allegory or were innovative regarding a technical basis.