Exposed: The Victorian Nude
- Dates: September 6, 2002 through January 5, 2003
The English Nude
British artists took up the challenge of portraying the nude in the early Victorian era as part of a mission to formulate a national style of figure painting that would rival that of their Continental contemporaries. In this endeavor, they were supported by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who were enthusiastic patrons of the arts and whose collection included nude subjects. Eager to avoid vulgar or prurient content, artists at this time generally took inspiration from well-known episodes of British history and literature that expressed clear moral or religious messages. The story of the English heroine Lady Godiva was a popular source, along with Edmund Spenser’s poem The Faerie Queene and William Shakespeare’s fanciful A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Even so, artists who concentrated on nationalistic themes involving nudity were not immune to accusations of indecency.
The majority of the paintings and sculpture on view in this exhibition were originally shown at the London Royal Academy, the most powerful art school and exhibition venue in England. As more artists depicted the nude in works they intended for display at the Royal Academy’s annual exhibitions in the 1830s, there was a consequent increase in critical and public debates about the propriety of nude imagery. For many, the painter or draftsman’s illusion of living flesh was too carnal, whereas the sculpted marble nude was exempt because it recalled the venerable, intellectual tradition of the ancient Greeks. Simultaneously, debates intensified about methods of art instruction, especially the use of the live model in the classroom. Although the privately run Royal Academy traditionally included life study in its training, students were permitted to study from life only if they had demonstrated their skills in drawing from plaster casts of antique Greek and Roman sculpture. In contrast, the newly founded Government School of Design (1837) did not initially include life drawing in its curriculum, although student pressure soon forced the reversal of this policy.
Controversy arose concerning the moral danger of bringing art students in contact with models, whose profession and generally lower social status put their morals in question. Concern for the welfare of the art viewer was also widespread, with artists, critics, and social and government agencies united in the general belief that art should be spiritually elevating in order to justify its existence. The problem was how to portray the nude naturalistically without appealing to sensual desire.
The Classical Nude
In the 1860s a group of young, progressive artists began to look increasingly to antique sources for inspiration, in reaction to what they considered to be the provincialism of the English nude. Influenced primarily by ancient Greek and Roman art and by their study on the Continent, they justified their portrayals of the nude body by placing it firmly within the framework of the respected classical tradition, sometimes even recapitulating the poses of well-known classical works in their art. Whereas earlier artists had validated their nudes by drawing on British historical and literary sources, this generation of artists took their subject matter from ancient Greek and Roman narratives in order to align themselves with broader and older literary and aesthetic traditions in Western art. Their efforts were supported by an already-strong scholarly tradition in England that emphasized the study of the ancient Greek and Roman literary classics and had produced such nineteenth-century English poets as John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Alfred Tennyson.
For the Victorian audience, associations with the classical world helped to elevate the nude and divorce it from implications of sexuality. The figures of classical myth were fictional characters whose story lines were not only standard and predictable, but were also the foundation of Western literature. Greek philosophical concepts of beauty and human perfection further ennobled the nude through an ideal that sought to balance mind and body.
The venerable classical nude was therefore put into service to promote contemporary ideas about hygiene, medicine, and eugenics (the study of improving humanity genetically). The Greek ideal of physical and intellectual perfection provided a rationale for a growing interest in male athleticism, while the voluptuous proportions of Aphrodite (or the Roman equivalent, Venus) were held up as a model for natural womanhood and were occasionally associated with more radical notions of female emancipation. Within all of these contexts, the classical body continued as the established archetype of beauty.
The Private Nude
Although publicly exhibited art was expected to uphold Victorian standards of morality, artists occasionally violated conventions of decency by displaying works that overtly encouraged sexual interpretations. Outside of exhibitions, such imagery sometimes met a demand for intimate, smaller-scale works that invited close scrutiny and responses rooted in personal feelings. Private patronage enabled artists to explore more subjective ways of depicting the nude, giving full expression to desires marginalized by mainstream culture.
The development of new technologies in the Victorian era contributed to an upsurge in publishing and made possible the wide distribution of images of the nude in books, newspapers, and magazines that could not easily be controlled. In this connection, the word pornography officially entered English usage in 1857 at the same time that the first law to deal specifically with pictorial and literary pornography was passed. Then as now, definitions for pornography and obscenity were inexact since they entailed subjective judgment. Because a distinction was made between art in private collections and imagery that was mass-produced and widely available, the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 had little impact on painting and sculpture or privately held photographs, prints, and books.
Photographic images of the nude, however, were easy targets of campaigners for public decency since they offered a level of immediacy not possible in painting and, like prints, could be cheaply and almost endlessly reproduced. Although some photographs were conceived as works of fine art, others were more explicitly pornographic. The Society for the Suppression of Vice invoked the Act of 1857 to seize more than a quarter of a million photographs and prints from shops between 1868 and 1880.
The widespread publicity devoted to discussions about obscenity and the high profile of the activities of the Society for the Suppression of Vice led some people to fear that such attention would only stimulate public interest. Their fears may have been well grounded, but there is no easy way of telling. Viewed from a more historical perspective, official measures to control the dissemination of unsavory imagery may be seen as paternalistic efforts on the part of the upper classes—designed not only to protect the masses, but also to stabilize a society perceived to be in dangerous flux.
The Artist's Studio
For Victorians who were uninitiated in the practical aspects of making art, the studio was a mysterious place, the site of the creative process that transformed the idea of beauty into material form. The "magic" of creation, however, was often the product of discipline and hard work, evidenced in this gallery by preparatory studies that led to completed works of art. Yet the general fantasy persisted (encouraged in part by artists seeking to enhance the marketability of their work) that the studio was a special place where the ordinary rules of life were suspended in the service of art.
A chief point of public curiosity was the role of the artist’s model in the creative process. Victorian artists often focused on the artist-model theme in their work, sometimes to justify the portrayal of the nude figure, sometimes to cater to market demand, and sometimes to explore their own notions of personal creativity. A number of interrelated themes recurred in contemporary commentary about the artist’s model. One pertained to the philosophical debates, waged since the time of the ancient Greeks, that focused on the issue of which was the better means to discovering absolute beauty: direct observation of nature or the artist’s idealizing imagination.
Another variation on the theme centered on the private studio as the site of seduction and passion—a notion basic to the Pygmalion story, in which the artist falls in love with his own creation. Whereas the Pygmalion theme was symbolic, popular imagination was fired by the notion that female models were morally corrupt because of their willingness to pose nude. Such negative assumptions were reinforced by social resistance to working women, continued attempts to ban the live model from art schools, and the proliferation of popular fiction about bohemian artistic life.
Artists were attuned to the importance of maintaining reputations of moral propriety. Even the illustrious president of the Royal Academy, Frederic Leighton, had a separate entrance to his studio for his models so that they could come and go without meeting his friends and patrons.
The Nude in High Art
During the late Victorian period, artists expanded the ways in which they represented the nude in works classified as "high art"—technically and thematically ambitious oils and sculpture usually intended for public exhibition. Adopting a broader repertoire of subjects, artists presented the body in more explicit states of subjection, exertion, and arousal, often on a spectacular scale, as if to test the limits of the audience’s tolerance for sexually charged subjects in such respected exhibition venues as the Royal Academy, the New Gallery, and the Society of British Artists.
The rise of the high-art nude sometimes smacked of sensationalism because of the dramatic narrative contexts in which the nude figure was placed. Opponents of nude imagery found in these high-profile works added ammunition for their campaigns to discredit the nude in art and continued to link such subject matter with declining public moral values. Moreover, the often-dramatic treatment of the nude was associated with French art, whose influence was habitually connected with vulgarity and excess—an aesthetic judgment lodged in long-standing nationalistic attitudes.
The heightened visibility of more aggressive depictions of the nude generated exceptional public controversy in 1885, when an unusually high number of nude subjects were displayed at the Royal Academy and the prestigious Grosvenor Gallery. The Academy’s treasurer, John Callcott Horsley, is believed to have written an anonymous letter to The Times, condemning the immorality he witnessed on the Academy’s walls. This now-famous letter stirred further vehement commentary, undoubtedly intensified by the moral panic that swept England in the mid-1880s in reaction to vivid newspaper reports about the widespread sexual victimization of women and children in the nation’s cities.
Despite the arguments by Horsley and others that nude imagery incited vice and sexual exploitation, their calls for censorship had little long-term effect on the arts. Indeed, their opposition to the high-art nude was ultimately dismissed in some quarters as an expression of uncultured or uneducated hysteria.
The Modern Nude: The Model as Subject
Around the turn of the century, the conventions of the academic, idealized nude began to be replaced by new, naturalistic treatments of the body in intimate, contemporary settings. In some cases the professional female model was herself the subject, underscoring the role of the studio model in the artistic process and the relationship of the professional model with the artist-creator. Although the theme of the model was well known, especially through variations of the Pygmalion narrative, the increasingly naturalistic approach to the nude shocked viewers and critics alike. Théodore Roussel's The Reading Girl, for example, was found "odious" and "ugly" because it was such a mundane, matter-of-fact presentation of a professional model taking a break in a studio.
A significant number of works featured nude or partially draped women in domestic interiors, especially bedrooms. These "boudoir nudes" by such cutting-edge young artists as William Orpen and Walter Richard Sickert frequently displayed the female body in seedy, darkened rooms that hinted at illicit sexual activity. The narrative possibilities presented by these images were often unsettling: without strong story lines, whether literary or historical, viewers were left to carve out content from their own imaginations. Moreover, in some cases the vigorous, even aggressive painting techniques appeared to defile and fragment the figure. Conservative critics were offended by this type of work, seeing it as alien (that is to say, French), unbeautiful, and immoral.
The Modern Nude: Naturism
From the 1860s, and especially in the years around 1900, images of nudes in informal outdoor settings emerged as an important category in British art. These works reveal a growing acceptance of contemporaneous French artistic influence in their painting method, characterized by brushstrokes loosely applied to the surface and the effect of having been done in the open air. Many of these pictures were shown at dissident exhibition societies such as the New English Art Club, an organization established in 1886 to introduce the works of artists who had been trained in France. The Francophile techniques promoted by the New English Art Club were perceived as a direct challenge to the conservatism and priority of the Royal Academy (the bastion of British artistic taste), and they were symptomatic of English artists’ gradual absorption of a range of international styles.
The representation of nude figures in the open air also intersected with ideas about the benefits of fresh air, exercise, and swimming, which were in themselves a response to reformist thinking about public health. Many painters and photographers showed youths simply enjoying the sun or engaged in athletic activities. Although sometimes calling on erotic sensibilities, such scenes were often interpreted as reflections of a universal longing for the untainted innocence and ease of youth. Other artists focused on the female nude, showing women basking in isolated, sunlit rural settings. Such treatments of women in nature indirectly recalled older, traditional motifs of Greek nymphs in pastoral, idyllic landscapes, thus investing these works with an aura of nostalgia for preindustrial society.