Female nudes: It’s one of the most common themes in painting, as well one of the most controversial. Art history books are brimming with them. Ever since artists rediscovered how to properly paint the human figure, there have been no shortage of nudes. They range from gods to prostitutes, familiar to exotic, divine to obscene. On the surface of the canvas, naked women reveal their bodies. Arms stretched, breast and hips round and shapely, risqué poses barely covering the genitals, shy and afraid; they never look at you directly. More than any other themes in painting, they were placed to be looked at. The artists often made sure you could look whatever and however you wished.
Why were female nudes so popular? We cannot go back to the 19th century to have a candid conversation with patrons of art. They are all dead. So we can’t know for sure what was behind their preferences. We know from texts, however, that they were not very straight-forward with it. Nudes were strenuously set apart from the merely naked. The former was to be considered sophisticated, and the latter was obscene. Nudes in official salons were always gods or nymphs like Aphrodite, orientalist subjects such as the odalisque or “allegories” of something. Nakedness of ordinary women in ordinary settings were deemed indecent. Manet’s Olympia(1863) and the Luncheon on the Grass(1863) received harsh criticisms because they broke this rule, while in the same year, Alexandre Cabanel’s even more naked Birth of Venus(1963) was lauded as a masterpiece. Looking back from the 21st century, such artificial differentiation seems hypocritical. The nude was arguably a way to introduce erotic beauty to the conservative mainstream, masked behind the pretext of sophistication. This practice held fast in western art for five centuries, and was rarely questioned before the 1970s.
However, the nude didn’t reign supreme forever. At the end of the 20th century, the nude started to grow out of fashion. The traditional nude died out along with the heroes, flawless painting techniques and figurative representation in art. The avant-garde had all sorts of new tricks up its sleeve. Photography threatened to replace artists as technicians of mimesis. Ironically, it was also around this time when the nude reached its pinnacle. If the hidden purpose of the nude really was eroticism, 19th century French Academic nudes were its culmination. The paintings of the time show the most sensual postures, the creamiest complexion and the most innocent faces; so as to amuse the male gaze. Looking back to the nudes of the time is an interesting activity. Some may see beauty, some may find it subtly disturbing.
French Academic artist Jules Lefebvre’s La Cigale(1872) depicts a naked young woman. The background is grey, and the dry leaves under her feet tell us that winter is coming. In the cold winds, she clads to what piece of fabric she has, and touches her hair and chin. Timid and remorseful, she stands cowering in a seductive contrapposto. Her arm is deliberately placed to accentuate the breasts. She stares vacantly into the autumn air, so that when the viewer appreciates her form, she dare not stare back. Being a very popular painting of the time, several reproductions were made. One of the versions was displayed in the Paris Salon on 1972, with the title Quand la vise fut venue (When the Cold Wind Blows). It’s a reference to the Aesop’s Fable The Ant and the Grasshopper. She is an allegory of the grasshopper, who sang in summer while the ants prepared for winter; only to realize later that she was naked and vulnerable. It is unclear if the painting was very effective in conveying the message.
Mythology was another great pretext behind exalted nakedness. This painting shows a beautiful young woman. She is lying on her bed in a rather erotic pose, with one leg locked under the other, and fingers caressing her own shoulders. Above her, mysterious pieces of gold rain down from the clouds. The painting by Alexandre-Jacques Chandron is a scene from Greek mythology. The woman in the painting is Danae, the daughter of King Acrisius of Argos. It was prophesied that the king would be killed by his daughter’s son. Fearing it may come true, the king confined her to her underground cell, so that no man would be able to touch her. Despite the effort, it was Zeus who had interest in her. Zeus made love to Danae in the form of golden rain. Later, She gives birth to Perseus, and the prophesy is fulfilled in the end. Both the narrative and the subject is evidently erotic. But the painting was well-received in the Salon, since the nude was a mythological figure. That was while well-dressed portraits of real people could stir controversy by revealing the cleavage.
Julius LeBlanc Stewart’s Nymphs Hunting(1898) comes from a much later time, when the traditional styles were already losing momentum. The painting seems bold to the degree that it almost seems decadent. The two women depicted are nymphs. The spears and dogs on leash show they are most probably hunting. Yet, their casual gait and contemporary hairstyle makes a confusing picture. It is as if Madam Fontainebleau suddenly decided to undress and wield a spear, during her weekend promenade. Rubens’ 1636 painting shows the same subject but with completely different movement and atmosphere. LeBlanc’s Nymphs are unfaithful to the mythology, and can even seem rather lewd.
Stewart’s Nymphs are reminiscent of Pornocrates, a painting by Félicien Rops of the Decadent movement. The central figure of the painting is a blindfolded woman being led by a hog. It is thought to be a symbol of Circe, a Greek goddess that came to be a symbol of sexual vice. She is seen walking on a marble platform. On the frieze are the four fine arts; sculpture, music, poetry and painting, all allegorically represented as despairing figures. What Rops wanted to paint was probably the supremacy of the decadence and eroticism to the traditional fine arts. However, eroticism was already an important part of it, only hidden behind a selection of canonical pretexts that disguised the decadent as the virtuous. Eroticism, along with piety, heroism and narcissism, was one of the greatest motivators of art.