Naked vs. Nude: Bodies and Bathers in Nineteenth-Century France

Naked vs. Nude: Bodies and Bathers in Nineteenth-Century France


– Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the Kimbell Art Museum. I’m George Shackelford, deputy director, and it’s my great pleasure to
welcome you here this evening to a talk by my great
friend, Nicole Myers. Nicky, if you’ll forgive
me for calling her by her nickname, is the
Barbara Thomas Lemmon Senior Curator at the
Dallas Museum of Art, which she joined in 2016. You will all, I hope, have
seen her beautiful exhibition, “Berthe Morisot: Impressionist Woman,” which just closed a few weeks ago at the Musee D’Orsay in Paris. In conjunction with that, she
did a beautiful installation in Dallas for the permanent collection of women artists in Europe. And she has just
incorporated the great gift of the Eugene and Margaret
McDermott Collection into the permanent collection
of the Dallas Museum of Art in a wonderful reinstallation that opened about a couple months ago. She is at work for the future on a exhibition of the Cubist
still lifes of Juan Gris. She is also at work on an
exhibition that will be in Dallas that she began when she was in Kansas City at the Nelson-Atkins Museum on the olive orchards of Vincent Van Gogh, and she is also at work, it
makes me dizzy to read all this, on Picasso and his sources. As I said, she was previously
at the Nelson-Atkins Museum as curator of European
painting and sculpture. And before that, she
held curatorial positions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, at the Saint Louis Art Museum and where I got to know her
at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where she joined my department when she was just one year
out of Washington University in St. Louis, her alma mater. She is also a graduate of
the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University,
where she did her PhD on Courbet and his nudes, and I will, at the risk of embarrassing her but also singing her praises, I will tell you that
the great art historian, Thomas Crow, who is on the faculty at NYU told me that Nicole Myers’ dissertation was the best dissertation
that he had read in a decade. So, yeah.
(audience applauds) As you know, that only
happens once every 10 years. (audience laughs) So would you please tonight
welcome Nicole Myers. (audience applauds) – Wow, I feel like I should just go home after that introduction. (laughs) But it was nice to have some applause about my dissertation topic, because I am going to drown
you in it this evening. Well good evening. Welcome everyone, thank you. Thank you for coming out, and thank you George for
this wonderful invitation to come and lecture on what is
one of my favorite subjects, the nude in 19th century French art. I was delighted to be able
to write for the catalog on Renoir’s early nudes, and this evening, I’ll be
giving even greater context to Renoir’s production by
exploring this complex, high-stakes genre within Western art. Before we begin though, I’m just gonna give you a little public service announcement. (audience laughs) This talk has been rated R for nudity and is intended
for a mature audience, so consider yourself warned. If you stumbled in here by accident, now is your time to leave. But of course, the temperatures
are dropping outside, but in here it’s about to get really hot. (audience laughs) In 1876, at the Second
Impressionist Exhibition, Renoir debuted a sensual
portrayal of an undressed woman ensconced in a shady, woodsy setting. He titled it simply “Etude” or “Study,” and it’s arguably one of
his most admired paintings. It symbolizes not only
Renoir’s production, synonymous today with the
voluptuous female nude but also that of Impressionism, as it so beautifully demonstrates
the virtuosic brushwork, vibrant palette and dazzling effects of light and atmosphere that we associate with the movement. While there may be debate
about the aesthetic value of Renoir’s late nudes, a debate that this exhibition
is boldly taking on, there seems to be almost universal appeal for early works like this, which makes it that much more jarring when we read reviews of it from 1876. Several critics found
it incredibly disturbing and even macabre. One argued that it would have been better to dress the large nude, as its purplish skin tones reminded him of game meat going bad. (audience laughs) Pretty harsh, right? It gets worse. Another critic cried, “Let’s throw a veil on Renoir’s Venus, which
should have just been hidden behind a screen.” Writing for “Le Figaro,”
Albert Wolff pronounced, quote, “These so-called artists call
themselves intransigents, Impressionists. They take canvas, color and brush, randomly throw down some tones and sign the whole lot. Try then to explain to Monsieur Renoir that a woman’s torso is not a heap of decomposing skin with
patches of purplish greens that denote a state of the
total decay of a cadaver.” It’s quite a leap from rotting corpse to today’s perception of this nude as a beautiful icon of Impressionism, available on products from wall calendars to cigarette cases, which you can order now just
in time for the holidays. But Renoir was certainly not surprised by his contemporary strong,
albeit exaggerated reactions to his painting. The fact that he called it simply “Study,” rather than titling it as he
would have a finished picture was a preemptive strategy. He knew it would be judged harshly on account of its sketch-like appearance, particularly as it concerned
the time honored genre of the nude. So he sought leniency by presenting it as a preparatory work, a category that was granted a certain
level of roughness in execution. If we unpack the criticism, the dominant thread in
Renoir’s treatment of the body, most notably his recreation
was most noticeably the recreation of the effect of dappled sunlight dancing
across exposed flesh. We take for granted the
Impressionists’ innovative depiction of shadows using greens and blues, rather than the grays and blacks taught by the government
sanctioned School of Fine Arts. We also take for granted
their fluid brushwork and shifting focus that opposed the firm drawing and precisely defined contours
espoused by the Academy, the governing body of France’s art system. Renoir’s bravado treatment of the body, so loose, colorful and fluid deliberately challenge the official style that demanded evenly lit,
smooth and pearly-toned skin for its classically inspired nudes. It was this comparison that
prompted the sarcastic reference to Renoir’s woman as Venus. Although it wasn’t commented upon, there’s a detail that likely
also provoked their ire, one that to our eyes is
rather subtle at first glance, but in the 19th century would
have been immediately noticed, the woman’s jewelry, a gold
bracelet, coral earring and sparkling ring, which announces that this is not the timeless, idealized, symbolic nude of high art. This is no mythological goddess of love, toga draped across her lap, but an ordinary French woman
who’s taken off her clothes for some god unknown reason and is just hanging out there
half naked in the woods. (audience laughs) To use Kenneth Clark’s famous formulation, she’s naked, she’s not nude. The naked is the here and now, the real, the individual, the model who has stripped for the painter and is
posing in her underwear. This simple transformation
from nude to naked was seen as both offensive
and revolutionary. For the nude held a
particularly exalted place within the Academy. From the moment of its
creation in the 17th century, the Academy ranked the
importance of paintings by the subject they portrayed. History paintings which
depict subjects taken from classical history,
mythology or the Bible, were placed at the very
top of this hierarchy. This is because these
subjects required mastery of human anatomy, in addition to an artist’s intellectual capacity to improve upon nature by
idealizing their subject. Within this structure, the perfected monumental
nude was considered the highest form of artistic achievement, the sublime vehicle for expressing humanity’s
most noble ideals. As such, the nude was a
political battleground where major claims were
staked regardless of style or school, and the front
line was the Salon, the regular exhibition held by the Academy that served to promote its
conservative artistic agenda. A jury composed of artists, typically academicians,
judged artist submissions and decided what work would go on display. Until the establishment of
independent exhibition venues in the second half of the 19th century, the Salon was the place for
artists to show their work to the public, to receive
critical attention and attract commissions or clients. Exhibiting at the Salon
was of central importance to anyone seeking to establish
themselves as a professional. But exhibiting a large-scale
nude was fundamental to establishing a reputation
as a great artist. It was a benchmark of success, and not just for academic artists but also those with avant-garde leanings such as Renoir. Though today he’s practically
synonymous with the nude, it wasn’t actually a
dominant motif in his career until 1885, when he was 44 years old and it was just a year before the last Impressionist
show would be held. Prior to that, Renoir’s
nudes were rare in comparison to the genre scenes and
portraits that make up the bulk of his early production. And yet, he understood that in order to make a name for himself and demonstrate his
full range of abilities, he needed to exhibit a nude. From 1863 to 1870, the nude
dominated his submissions to the Salon, and it’s a
story of constant trial and failure of trying to
find a unique artistic voice while toeing the line between acceptable and non-acceptable forms of nudity, both to please and
appease the Salon sensors. As we’ll see a little later one, Renoir vacillated between
two models for the nude. One based on academic precedence represented by the neoclassical school and the other based on a new realist mode that subverted that very tradition. Renoir was by all accounts
at a great crossroads in the depiction of the genre. And by the time he
succeeded in getting a nude into the Salon of 1870, and I’m showing you that painting here, the field in which he was
playing had radically changed. Before we move forward
with Renoir’s story, we need to move back in time to the turn of the 19th century when an incredible shift took place in the depiction of the nude
that shaped both his production and also how we think about and discuss the nude genre today. If I ask you to picture in
your mind a painting of a nude by giving you a blank screen here, so that you can really
picture it in your mind, any nude that you want. You got it in your head? Okay, how many of you
pictured a male nude? So my guess was correct,
not very many of you. When we talk about the nude genre today, it goes without saying, we’re
talking about the female nude, an undressed woman. But you might be surprised to learn that this understanding or assumption is a relatively recent phenomenon. For centuries, it was
the idealized male nude that reigned supreme within the tradition of Western art. It wasn’t until the second
quarter of the 19th century, the period in which Renoir was born, that the female nude became
a subject considered worthy of high art in its own right. And it eventually supplanted the male nude as the norm. The transition from male
to female was so thorough and our cultural
indoctrination so complete that today when we discuss
the genre of the nude, it’s understood to be female. If you want your audience to understand the subject is a man, you have to qualify it as a male nude, much in the same way that
if you want your audience to understand an artist is female, you have to say that it’s a woman artist. Born in classical antiquity, the male nude was revived
in the Renaissance from which point it
remained a constant presence in painting, sculpture and works on paper until the beginning of the 19th century. It was the idealized male nude that was seen in the academic tradition as the ultimate embodiment of physical, intellectual and moral achievement. In essence, the best that art
and humanity had to offer. The representation of the heroic male nude reached his height in France
at the end of the 18th century with neoclassical paintings
like those by his leader, Jacques-Louis David. His monumental “Intervention
of the Sabine Women” is a textbook demonstration of both history, painting
and neoclassical principles. The subject is taken from ancient Rome, and the male bodies are treated in an idealized and sober style that together represent the
highest of masculine virtues, physical and moral strength,
rationality and order, democratic patriotism. Not accidentally, these
values coincided with those of the French Revolution. And David’s Neoclassicism
became synonymous with the revolutionary cause, at times even used as propaganda. He began planning this painting, a scene about reconciliation while imprisoned during
the Reign of Terror. But with the end of the revolution and the overthrow of Napoleon’s
despotic empire in 1815, Neoclassicism, the official style of both of these failed political initiatives, began to fall out of favor. This was helped along by the emergence of new aesthetic movements
in the 1830s and the 1840s, such as Romanticism and Naturalism that developed in opposition
to neoclassical values. By emphasizing contemporary subjects, these competing schools
found fewer occasions to paint the nude. Well, the male nude that is. While it remained central to a classical fine arts education, it began to disappear in practice. A virtual retreat was made
from employing the male nude to embody lofty, rational, partisan ideas in the wake of so much
violence and political unrest, creating space for the
reassuringly passive and definitively sexy female
nude to take center stage. It was Jean-August-Dominique Ingres, one of David’s most promising students, who unwittingly helped
put the nail in the coffin of the neoclassical male nude. His “La Grande Odalisque,” which was exhibited at the Salon of 1819 marked the first time
a solitary contemporary monumental female nude was offered for public display with
absolutely no narrative, purpose or artistic precedent. There’s nothing moralizing
or uplifting about this nude, rather we’re shown a decidedly naked woman lounging in a modern day harem, cunningly suggested by
only a few key props. The purpose of this body is to viewed and enjoyed solely on the
merits of its physical beauty. To be sure, there was always a market and an audience for paintings
depicted saucy subjects with naked ladies. This was nothing new. But when it came to edifying the morals of the French public, the
Salon’s purported goal, the genre was tightly regulated as the female nude presented a
particular set of challenges. The male nude was a desexualized emblem that exuded meaning above and beyond its physical characteristics. Although we might admire it for
its perfected physical form, it wasn’t meant to be a
passive object of desire, but rather an active vehicle for the expression of
intellectual, spiritual, even religious ideals. The stakes in this gendered presentation of the nude body were quite high, when one considers that
the primary makers, audience and consumers of the nude at this time were explicitly, if not almost exclusively, men. While the male nude served as a channel for the moralizing content
of history paintings, the female nude was always
an object of sexual desire, even when invested with symbolic meaning, such as a portrayal of
the mythological graces, or the biblical Susanna
being spied upon by elders, as the only academic subjects that justified the presence
of a nude were depictions of literary or historical characters or timeless figures stemming
from classical imagery. The story of the female nude in France is one of toeing the line between high art and popular erotica. So how did Ingres get
his sexy modern concubine past the conservative Salon jury? As it turns out, the “Odalisque” who was by definition a
sex slave or concubine was something of a loophole, for it was virtually
the only subject drawn from contemporary life that
the Academy deemed acceptable until the middle of the 19th century. Though today it’s hard to
consider Orientalist nudes as anything other than the product of male fantasy and artistic license, in the 19th century they were perceived as representing a slice
of contemporary life in North Africa and the Middle East. What made the “Odalisque”
acceptable was the distancing of the subject in geographical space. Sure, it’s a naked lady, but hey, she’s not French. She’s safely situated
in some far away place that none of us are ever going to go, and more importantly she’s young. She’s svelte. She has skin like porcelain. Her facial features are generic, and she’s stripped of all body hair. Ingres followed academic expectations for the idealized portrayal of the body, and in doing so, gave his undressed woman the cloak of acceptability,
transforming the imperfect, the human, the naked, into
the noble nude of high art. By stripping away the serious narrative that justified the depiction
of the female nude, Ingres produced an entirely new genre, the nude for nude’s sake,
which would have tremendous and ultimately ruinous ramifications for the French Academy. And this new genre came
with novel iconography. By posing the “Odalisque,”
an odaliscan slave, with her arms crossed above her head, Ingres adapted the
traditional gesture of sleep established by Venetian
painters like Giorgione in the early 16th century. But rather than suggesting sleep as was tradition, he
invoked the classical pose to represent voluptuousness
and erotic linger. Take a good look at this pose. You’re gonna see it again
and again laying down and standing up. It becomes both the battle
cry and the last gasp of the classical nude
genre in the 19th century. Ingres’ erotic nudes, a
number of which went on view in Paris in a private exhibition in 1846 essentially opened a
flood gate for artists to paint brazenly sexual representations of the female body from
that point forward. For in the context of
the strict moral dictates of France’s fine arts administration, eroticism could be present if it conformed to a specific visual code that hinged on the perceived morality of the so-called desexualized subject. So long as the female body
was not anatomically correct, so long as it was depilated, polished and presented as an odalisque or some kind of vaguely historicizing figure, dressed as it were in the
trappings of high art, it was tolerated by the official
sensor and public alike. The result of this policy
was the growing inclusion of erotic nudes masquerading
as generic Romans, generic Greek women, bacchants, bathers and nymphs within the government sponsored Salon over the course of the 19th century. A narrow margin separated the
decorous from the scandalous, and the game was in how far
artists could push the limit and still slip their sexy
nudes past Salon juries. While one strategy was to distance the sexualized
female body in space, a new category of provocative
nude was introduced in the Salon of 1847, the nude that was safely
distanced in time. That year, Thomas Couture
unveiled his monumental “Romans in their Decadence,”
a dramatic recreation of an orgy intended to
symbolize the decline of the Roman Empire. His classical treatment of
the nude and its depiction within the context of antique life justified the painting’s massive scale and explicit sexual content in the Salon jury’s eyes, despite the fact that the story was completely fabricated. Okay, and bonus points here
if you can spot Ingres’ sort of iconography if you will, a standed figure in his languid pose transposed from the harem to ancient Rome. Did you find her? There she is. Jean-Leon Gerome made his
debut at the Salon of 1847 with “The Cock Fight,”
a suggestive painting that depicts primarily nude,
almost life-size adolescents fighting roosters on an antique patio. Gerome ingeniously contrived the pose of the young girl to conceal
that which is normally exposed, her breasts, while revealing
that which is typically hidden, her sex, just left of
the composition center. As with Couture’s painting,
Gerome’s salacious display of the female body was excused
by his idealized treatment, as well as the historicizing theme, which introduced yet a
new category of the nude that was dubbed antique genre painting. Surprisingly, neither
Couture’s nor Gerome’s nudes were singled out by
critics for impropriety. That honor would go to Auguste Clésinger for his “Woman Bitten by a Snake,” which was the success by scandal of 1847. The sculpture’s incendiary reception was based on several factors, not least of which was
the completely nude, life-size woman who was a
recognizable public figure. (laughs) I mean, if you’re gonna go big. (audience laughs) The model was Apollonie Sabatier, a well known actress and
courtesan who was famous for her voluptuous curves. Placed strategically on its side, the nude’s twisting pose
conveniently exposes both the front and the back of the body, allowing unfettered views
of prominent breasts, buttocks and genitalia, a view enhanced by Clésinger’s adaptation of course of Ingres’ cheeky pose. Despite being stripped of
specific facial features and pubic hair and thereby transformed into a classical nude, the
sculpture’s realism was so great that Clésinger was accused of having transferred a plaster cast of Sabatier’s body into marble. Adding insult to injury,
the narrative context of Clésinger’s realistic
woman was hardly cut and dry. Recognizing the potential for the nude’s unabashed sensuousness to disturb public morality, Clésinger supposedly
added a bronze serpent encircling the figure’s
left leg at the last minute in order to appease the Salon jury with a kinda generic
allusion to a biblical or a classical subject. If you’re looking for it,
the bronze is now gone. It was replaced with a marble snake that’s wrapped around the figure’s wrist. Nevertheless, several critics
of the time made clear that the addition of the
serpent in no way disguised what to them was the work’s true subject, a naked woman writhing not in pain but in orgasmic pleasure. Théophile Gautier noted
the work’s modernity, declaring it quote, “A masterpiece which is neither a goddess nor a nymph, not a forest nymph, not a mountain nymph, not a sea nymph, but simply a woman.” The hypocrisy inherent within
the Academy’s distinction of what was an appropriate nude and what was not was
perhaps best represented at the Salon of 1850, when Théodore Chassériau
presented his “Bather Sleeping Near a Stream.” Following Clésinger’s lead, Chassériau depicted
Alice Ozy, his mistress, who was also a recognizable actress and high class courtesan
reclining in the foreground of a silvan setting. Chassériau was Ingres’ sole pupil to follow him in the genre
of the monumental nude, and the latter’s influence
is particularly evident in the pose of the model. I don’t even have to point
this out for you anymore, do I? But he takes it a step further, transferring his sleeping beauty
back to the great outdoors in an even more direct reference to Giorgione’s idyllic “Sleeping Venus,” likely an attempt to align his outrageously
sensual presentation of the female body with
the classical genre of the pastoral nude. For as the title makes clear, the subject of this
pastoral is not a nymph or a goddess but an
ordinary woman taking a nap after a bath and using
her own discarded dress and undergarments as bedding. To drive this point home, Chassériau not only included
Ozy’s facial features, but he also included her underarm hair, a decisively taboo allusion
to a real female body. In spite of this audacious detail, Chassériau’s “Bather”
didn’t cause a scandal, perhaps because his depiction was still more or less idealized. A bright even light smooths
away the skin’s imperfections, and this was a trick of
course that he learned from his teacher Ingres, and the supple youthful body conforms to classical proportions of beauty. He seemed to have struck a perfect balance between tradition and modernity, and his “Bather” was not only
accepted by the Salon jury and praised in the press,
but it was also bought by the French state for the
Musee Calvet in Avignon. Chassériau’s baffling
success undoubtedly provoked what would be the next scandal
concerning the depiction of the nude at the Salon in 1853, Gustave Courbet’s inscrutable “Bathers.” Monumental in scale, “The Bathers” features two
contemporary French women in a dense woodsy glade. One is a corpulent nude,
stepping out of a shallow pool and walking towards her clothes, which have been draped
over the branch of a tree, and the other is undressing
on the ground beside her, frozen halfway between
removing her stockings. By 1853, Courbet had already
made waves at the Salon by exhibiting scenes of
contemporary French life, such as rural road menders on the monumental scale typically reserved for history painting. He was immediately hailed the leader of a new school of
painting called Realism, an allusion to his so-called
sort of low subjects that were drawn from everyday life. From his early days in Paris as a student, Courbet recognized that in order
to make a name for himself, he needed to exhibit a nude at the Salon, but a unique challenge arose for the would-be realist artist. There were relatively few activities in everyday life that necessitated nudity, and even fewer that were not
considered morally offensive. Like Clésinger’s and
Chassériau’s examples, Courbet’s monumental nude
derived from classical imagery of outdoor bathers, such
as Venus, Susanna or Diana that were transformed
during the 18th century into the anonymous, contemporary,
and frequently erotic. The trend was started by Watteau with this intimate cabinet
picture, “Lady at her Toilette.” Despite including emblematic
references to Venus, such as the gilded Cupid
and half-shell headboard, Watteau changed the mythological narrative of the goddess of love at her toilette into a contemporary genre scene of an ordinary mistress
preparing for a romantic tryst with the help of her maid. Watteau’s model was quickly
applied to bathing scenes, and the artists spanning the Rococo period from François Lemayne, whom
you’re seeing there on the left, to Fragonard, frequently
portrayed outdoor bathers without historical pretext,
delighting in the depiction of exposed female bodies
stepping into pools of water and often assisted by
maids wearing clothing. Even representations of
goddesses, such as Diana and Venus walked a fine
line between history and genre painting, as artists like Boucher
deliberately downplayed the mythological content
in their paintings. In works like “Diana at the Bath,” only a few discrete details
such as Diana’s diadem and discarded bow and
arrows reveal her identity as a deity. Boucher’s “Diana” was
acquired by the Louvre in 1852 and it was immediately copied by a number of young, avant-garde artists, such as Édouard Manet, Henri Fantin-Latour and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Notably, Courbet began
painting his large “Bathers” that same year in 1852. As he’d anticipated, when
it went on view in the Salon in 1853, it was immediately
attacked by critics for its subversion of the
age old bathing tradition with its aggressively realistic nude. Instead of finding an
idealized young nymph, Salon goers were faced
with what they perceived as a fat, middle aged and
recognizably bourgeois woman that was consistently characterized as ugly and filthy. Courbet’s treatment of the
nude provoked ire among critics and a great deal of ink was spilled on what they found objectionable. I’m going to read you
one of the best ones, as it gives a sense of the strong emotions that this painting has provoked in people. Paul de Saint-Victor wrote quote, “The Bathers are to the Dianas, Ledas and Bathsheba of the great painters that which toads are to
swans and fish to Nereids. Imagine the horrible
woman seen from the back getting out of a pond and
showing in its entirety the armored rump of a
hippopotamus, fat and engorged. Blackish crevices identical
to those that elephants get on their corse skin by crushing
flies between two wrinkles go back and forth across
this mass of swollen skin which is,” it goes
on, “which is supported by two misshapen legs
built like balusters that are being crushed
by obesity and puffiness. A scrap of dishtowel
serves as a loin cloth to this hideous nudity. She moves towards the tree from which she has
suspended her old clothes and her rounded arm attempts to make during this journey a gesture from an antique statue of the
most crude presumptuousness.” End quote. Yowzas. (audience laughs) So for any of you who have
ever had anything negative written about a work of art you’ve made or something you might have published, it will probably never be as bad as that. (audience laughs) So of course, one of the
things they were objecting to were these really strange gestures. The women exchange an
incomprehensible dialogue through exaggerated rhetorical gestures that parody the clear narrative structures mandated by the Academy in
the genre of history painting. The poses were in fact borrowed
from religious paintings depicting Christ telling
Mary Magdalene “touch me not” after his resurrection. The critics don’t seem to have
recognized this exact source. Rather they responded
to the meaninglessness and the absurdity of this
decontextualized gesture. Of course, as you can imagine, most of the objected to the manner that the body was painted. Courbet didn’t stop at painting a plump, mature female body, which already went
against academic ideals, but he reveled in
exaggerating in its rolls, ripples and fleshly abundance. His illusionistic shading
of the figure’s volume using gray and black
was read as dirty skin. Cham’s caricature
published in “Le Charivari” that you’re seeing there in the center features a filthy central bather and is accompanied by the caption, “A 45 year old woman
about to bathe herself for the first time in her life in the hope of finding some relief for her varicose veins.” (audience laughs) Chambois caricature,
which you’re seeing there on the far right, sarcastically calls her “the Venus of the Lower Rhine.” If classical nudes
represented one extreme, Courbet’s realist nude represented its equally contrived other, it’s the anti-Venus. There’s also an unspoken aspect in the painting’s iconography that contributed to the
critics’ strong reaction. For in addition to drawing
from high art sources like Boucher, Courbet
also found inspiration in low forms of popular culture and more specifically the
erotic print tradition that grew out of the
18th century iconography of the anonymous nude bather. I’m showing you here how
Boucher’s sexy nymphs and goddesses were
essentially that in name only and how this imagery was
updated in the 19th century through contemporary facial
features and hairstyles. And actually, you’re gonna notice is that the large grouping of nude
women get replaced by pairs. Lithographers like Charles
Bargue and Joseph Félon seized on this imagery, producing hundreds upon hundreds of prints in the 1850s that feature pairs of contemporary
French women lounging, bathing and generally lulling
about woodsy river banks, often selling them in albums
with titles like “The Sylphs,” “The Nymphs” and “Mysteries of the Woods” to get them past publishing sensors. Okay, and if you do not recognize what the print on the left is riffing, then there’s just no hope. (audience laughs) The inherently erotic qualities of these prints are underscored
by the frequent pairing of blondes with brunettes, the established iconography
for lesbian coupling in 18th century libertine imagery, and actually there’s a
great example of that in the Boucher that’s hanging
in the exhibition here. As is the appearance of white stockings, which was a stock symbol of lust and sexual availability in Western art since the 17th century. Here you’re seeing poor Diana, who is so innocently drying her foot, but still in a pretty
racy position, cross legs. It lets you get a
glimpse between her legs, made extra piquant in the 19th century with the addition of the stocking that’s being removed
from the bather’s foot. A whole subset of these popular prints show women stepping out of a shallow pool, and the bather shown from the back typically displays a curvy backside, a preference that appears
to be a continuation of Boucher’s 18th century ideal. In an absolutely brilliant mashup, Courbet incorporates all
of these visual codes for sexuality, from the stockings to the blonde brunette pairing to the libertine subject itself, yet he refuses to play
up the bathers’ erotic and sensual qualities. In doing so, he ultimately
denies the viewer the pleasure associated with scrutinizing
the naked female body, here, offered up for consumption
on a truly massive scale. Courbet created a parody
not only of a new genre but of the academic tradition itself. By seamlessly melding
multiple visual sources from both high and low art forms, he invented a new genre for
the depiction of the nude, one in which to use the
critic Louis Arnold’s words, “The female figure is more than nude. She’s undressed.” With this controversial, middle aged, middle class realist nude, Courbet tore down a
500-year-old artistic system, exposing its hypocrisy and instantly becoming the standard against which successive generations of avant-garde artists
would measure themselves. Although Manet is often
credited as the inventor of the modern nude as we know it today, it was in response to
Courbet that a decade later, he painted his notorious
“Luncheon on the Grass.” In this massive painting,
Manet upped the ante by pairing two women, one completely naked and the other bathing in a chemise with two fully dressed men on the banks of a woodland stream, their rowboat ward on standby. Following Courbet’s model, Manet drew upon his extensive knowledge of historic Western art. He combined iconographic sources from the Renaissance to the Rococo to produce an utterly
contemporary painting of Parisians enjoying a
rather bohemian picnic on the banks of the Seine. The subject, for example, was inspired by Titian’s “Concert Champêtre,” a mysterious allegorical painting that’s been interpreted as an image of Arcadia or man’s harmony with nature. The poses and general
disposition of the central trio were taken from an engraving after Raphael’s now lost
painting, “The Judgment of Paris,” which was widely circulated
in artist studios in the 19th century. The woman bathing in a
shift in the background comes from such erotic
Rococo bathing scenes as those produced by Jean-Baptiste Pater, whose numerous repetitions of
the motif feature large groups of women bathing in
transparent white slips often in the company of men. That Manet was intentionally
referencing this type of French Rococo imagery is hinted in the title he originally
gave the painting. He called it “Le Bain” or “The Bath,” the title used frequently by Pater and other 18th century
artists, both in paint and also in print when
depicting this secular subject. But it’s the unconventional
nude in the foreground that steals the show, as it rejects the convention
of the sexually desirable and flirtatious woman. Unlike Courbet’s monumental bather, who is noted by one of his critics, “literally moons the viewer,” Manet’s nude stares at us intensely with an expression that
is part acknowledgement, part bemusement. Her direct gaze denies
easy access to the scrutiny and enjoyment of her body, as does Manet’s treatment of her flesh, which is flat and void of detail and redirects your attention back to the figure’s commanding face. Manet’s denial of the hetero
male viewer’s pleasure by presenting a nude that
was neither allegorical nor sexually appealing
in conventional terms can be seen as the heir to the realist tradition begun by Courbet. But if Courbet had subverted
the classical genre by creating the first
deliberately undesirable nude in his “Bathers,” Manet took it to the next level by presenting an undesirable
naked prostitute, for the woman in the foreground sitting on top of her
discarded clothing was clearly not a bather in the traditional sense. The only extant motifs of the time that justified the
presentation of clothed men with naked women were representations of either artist models or prostitutes, categories that were
problematically blurred in the 19th century, since women in both professions were paid to remove their clothing. The subject truly baffled
Manet’s contemporaries. However, the general consensus
was that it was vulgar. Critics saw it as an indecent
scene of bourgeois men on a scabrous outing with
low class prostitutes. As summed up by the critic Etienne quote, “A common low class
prostitute from the Rue Breda, stark naked at that, lounges brazenly between two warders properly
draped and wearing cravats. These two seem like students on holiday misbehaving to prove themselves as men, and I seek in vain for the
meaning of this uncouth riddle.” Manet submitted his
audacious history painting to the Salon of 1863, where
it was promptly rejected on account of its salacious subject. However, Manet was presented
with the opportunity to participate in the now
infamous Salon des Refusés, a separate exhibition created
by the Emperor Napoleon III in response to the
particularly harsh Salon jury, which that year had rejected
a staggering number of artists including the young Renoir, which takes us to the
last chapter of our talk. If the shared goal of
Courbet and Manet was to dismantle the academic tradition by exposing the hypocritical criteria for the acceptable presentation
of the female nude, it could not have been starker
than at the Salon of 1863. At the same moment that Manet was exhibiting his rejected “Luncheon on the Grass”
at the Salon des Refusés, a slew of academic painters
were exhibiting their nudes at the official Salon next door. The sudden popularity of
Rococo representations of voluptuous goddesses
and seductive courtesans sparked a new interest in
the genre of the female nude, which in fact was not a standard or even a frequent
motif of major Salon art until that very year, 1863. The sheer number of nudes
on display in that Salon prompted the critic Theophile Gautier to dub it “The Salon of the Venuses.” And indeed the two great
success stories that year were Alexandre Cabanel’s “Birth of Venus” and Etienne Baudry’s
“The Pearl and the Wave, Persian Fable.” Both paintings present highly erotic and flirtatious nudes that were in theory neutralized through their idealized forms as well as their classical and
supposedly literary motifs, but Baudry would admit
in a letter to a friend that there was in fact no
literary source for his subject. This was no Persian fable. And while his nude was accepted, Manet’s was rejected for indecency. This double standard, which
allowed the French public to freely engage in sexual fantasy while staunchly maintaining
a righteous moral stance was called out by left-wing writers in Courbet’s and Manet’s circle. The philosopher Proudhon accused
the imperial administration of contributing to the degradation of public morality, pointing
out the transparent formula by which the modern taste for voluptuousness could be satisfied. Émile Zola for his part wryly commented on Cabanel’s “Birth of Venus,” observing quote, “The goddess
drowned in a sea of milk, resembles a delicious courtesan but not of flesh and blood. No, that would be indecent, but made of a sort of
pink and white marzipan.” (audience laughs) In spite of the less criticism of what they saw a product
of a corrupt system, Cabanel’s painting was praised
among mainstream art critics and immediately bought by Napoleon III for his personal collection for the extraordinary
price of 40,000 francs. His purchase was followed
by that of his wife, the Empress Eugenie of Baudry’s
painting for 20,000 francs. Such was the official taste
of the imperial court, and untowards influenced
the once highbrow genre of the academic nude
was emptied of meaning to please a philistine audience, a crisis from which it
would never recover. Théophile Gautier
perhaps summed it up best when describing the preponderance of what he called the Parisian Venuses, young ladies of the sea undressed by a Mr. Cabanel and Mr. Baudry. He would lament, quote, “The
French School as it appeared at the Salon of 1863 means nothing. What the painters in vogue are making and why they make them, even
they know nothing about it. If it’s not perhaps that such a subject will
please a certain crowd and will sell for a high price, it seems that they paint
for a presumed buyer and not at all because
of a personal aspiration and artistic reason. The big success of the Salon will be for these goddesses that unfortunately don’t symbolize beauty as they did in the art of
antiquity or Italian art.” It was in this contentious context that Renoir, at the age of 22,
submitted his first painting to the Salon in 1863. Like Courbet and Manet before him, Renoir understood the importance of exhibiting a large-scale nude at the annual Salon to launch his career. He was well versed in the
Academy’s hierarchical system, as in 1861, he enrolled
in Charles Gleyre Studio to pursue traditional academic training following his work as a painter of ceramics, fans and blinds. Gleyre’s training was geared
towards preparing students for admission, both to the Salon and to the School of Fine Arts, which Renoir achieved in 1862. It was through his friendship
with Alfred Sisley, Claude Monet and Frederic Bazille, each of whom had enrolled in Gleyre Studio between 1860 and 1863, that Renoir began to explore his nation
avant-garde inclinations. By the end of 1863, this Gleyre group had
formed a tight-knit circle that shared a strong
admiration for Courbet, the father of Realism, and
his disciple Édouard Manet. Both of these artists
have met this young group by 1865, and both Manet and
Courbet served as mentors and friends to varying degrees. Through the examples of Courbet and Manet, the Gleyre group radically transformed the realist aesthetic. They maintained the
emphasis on subjects drawn from everyday life,
often on a massive scale, but added innovative plein
air painting techniques and shifted their palettes
from the dark earth tones of the old masters to
bright, luminous color. Nowhere is the influence of the
realist masters more evident in Renoir’s work than in the
handful of nudes he produced in the 1860s. It was likely the influence
of both his official and unofficial training that inspired him to paint his first Salon submission, a mythological scene of a nymph and a fawn that presumably featured a female nude. Unknown today, the painting was rejected and Renoir promptly destroyed it, perhaps inspired by what he saw when he visited that Salon in 1863. As we’ve seen, he would have found himself at this incredible crossroads between two very different traditions for painting the female nude. Unwilling to choose, his production between 1863 and 1876 can
be seen as oscillating between these two distinct poles, in attempt to find a balance
between the timelessness and stability of classical art and the down to earth
ephemerality of realism. Renoir would return to the production of a nude destined for the Salon of 1866 with a painting that’s known today only through its
inclusion on the back wall of Bazille’s “Studio on
the Rue de la Condomine.” This one here. It was his first attempt
at a large-scale painting, and it depicted two women in a landscape, one nude seen from the back
making a cryptic gesture with outstretched arms, the other dressed and
seated on the ground. We’ve seen this before, right? Clear imitation of Courbet. In spite of this, or rather perhaps because
of this open pastiche, his attempt at exhibiting
the monumental painting at the Salon of 1866 was dashed when it was rejected by the jury. For the next year’s Salon, Renoir changed his strategy, choosing a familiar mythological subject, “Diana the Huntress,” in a bid to please the
conservative academy jury. Nevertheless while the
subject was traditional, Renoir’s treatment of the
theme was totally subversive. He presented the goddess as
an earthy, physically mature, flesh and blood woman seated
next to a freshly slain deer. The realism of both figures boldly referencing Courbet once again. As if to emphasize the contrast in his treatment of the nude
with the idealized deities that grace the walls of the Salon, Renoir painted large
portions of the composition with a palette knife, a
technique directly associated with Courbet that ran
counter to the smooth and highly finished surfaces
promoted by the Academy. Renoir’s endeavor to
make a serious painting by combining classical subject matter with avant-garde practice was a bold move in his struggle to gain
entry to the Salon. In spite of this effort, the jury rejected
Renoir’s “Diana” in 1867. The rejection was
particularly bitter that year, as Paris was once again
hosting the World’s Fair, and it was truly a lost opportunity to exhibit and attract a global clientele. But if there was one silver lining, it was that both Courbet and
Manet mounted retrospectives of their work in rented pavilions across from the fair grounds. Courbet displayed 115
works organized by genre, and it must have been
revelatory for Renoir to see so many of his
notorious Salon paintings for the first time. Included among the realist
manifestos on display were “The Bathers” and its
pendant “The Wrestlers.” I didn’t show you that before. This one features two
standing partially nude men jostling in a landscape. It really didn’t bring
hardly any criticism, if you can believe that. Everybody was focused on the ladies. The retrospective also
featured “Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine,” what was basically the
scandal of the Salon of 1857, and lesser known intimately scaled work, such as “Bather Sleeping Near a Brook” that you can see here in the exhibition, she depicts a naked unidealized
contemporary woman dozing in a shady glade. Manet’s retrospective featured 56 works spanning his career, among them the only three
nudes he ever produced in oil on canvas. It’s funny. He credited for being the
father of the modern nude, but he really didn’t paint it very much. So “The Luncheon on the
Grass,” which you know, “Olympia,” painted the same year in 1863 and basically taking that depiction of the prostitute indoors, another riff on the
Renaissance’s portrayal of Venus, and “Surprised Nymph,” an
early mythological subject whose pose was also drawn
from old master sources. The impact of seeing so many paintings by the two leaders of Realism had a profound effect on Renoir. Inspired by Courbet’s
“Wrestlers,” he created one of his most original, boldly
unconventional paintings, not only within his own production, but within the 19th century’s. And so as you’ll recall,
male nudes had long fallen out of favor. In “Boy with a Cat” of 1868, a nude boy is shown from the back standing in a shallow interior space. He leans against a piece of furniture draped with silky white fabric embellished with flowers, a pattern echoed in the floral carpet below, and he embraces a large calico cat seated on a velvety green pillow. Drawn from a classical prototype, the pose was likely based on
the “Sleeping Hermaphrodite,” a Roman copy of a Greek
sculpture in the Louvre that features a nude of dual sex laying face down on the bed, its arms cradling its head on a pillow. Renoir, a frequent visitor to the Louvre brought the figure to its feet and inverted his orientation in an incredible subversion
of the traditional iconography of the female nude. Everything from the
domestic setting, pale skin, youthful body, emphasis on the buttocks and indirect gaze to the floral fabric and also the cat, the
conventional stand-in for female genitalia, is standard code for the display of the
female nude in Western art. Here called into question
by the gender of the subject as in its classical prototype. In another incredibly bold move, Renoir transported a male figure into the domain of the feminine. He retained all the signifiers for the erotic display of the female body, recast with a sensual male nude whose opaque chalky pallor
and relatively flat modeling recalls that of Manet’s “Olympia,” as does the awkward cross-legged pose and dark shallow interior
decorated with floral wallpaper and rich green and white textiles. It’s truly a stunning work, but one that remained an
outlier in Renoir’s production, as Courbet would remain the primary artist with whom he grappled. The reverberations of
Courbet’s 1867 pavilion reached a climax in
Renoir’s nude production in his “Bather with a Terrier” of 1870, a monumental vertical composition that essentially recasts
his first failed attempt at creating a Salon-worthy nude in 1865. The painting is a curious amalgamation of Courbet’s “Bathers” of 1853 and “Young Ladies on
the Banks of the Seine,” which depicts two pleasure seeking women of dubious moral character
lounging alfresco, which as I mentioned,
caused a huge scandal when it was exhibited
at the Salon of 1857. It may not be obvious why
this was so scandalous, but the figure in the foreground
is actually laying around in her underwear. She’s laying on top of her dress and sort of covered by a beautiful shawl. One more fun detail to
point out is that there is a discarded rowboat with a man’s hat, and only seeing this in
person for the first time do I see that that gets
completely transported into Renoir’s version. In an attempt to avoid the aspersions cast on Courbet’s two
scandalous paintings, Renoir invested his large
“Bather” with the trappings of purity, in spite of the fact that she is most
definitely naked not nude. The demure pose based on the
classical Venus pudica model conceals the figure’s pubic area with a carefully placed hand that simultaneously draws attention to a gold wedding band placed at the dead center
of the composition. Can’t miss it. Rather than Olympia’s cat, Renoir has included a lap dog, the traditional symbol of
fidelity in Western art. Renoir’s conversion of
Courbet’s prototypes into a respectable married bourgeois woman gained him entry into the Salon of 1870 with his first nude. Although his realist treatment
of the woman’s mature body didn’t spare him from the
same negative critique that was launched at Courbet’s
“Bathers” 17 years earlier, mainly that the figure was ugly and dirty. In spite of this triumph, Renoir remained unsure of what
direction he wanted to take and vacillated between
the avant-garde model and that of the classical tradition as represented by Ingres, for Courbet and Manet
were not the only artists who had major one man shows in 1867. Our friend Ingres died
just before the opening of the World’s Fair, prompting
a massive retrospective of his works that spring. Among the 600 works that went on display were some of his most famous nudes, including these two that you
know, our two odalisques, as well as the “Valpinçon
Bather” and “The Source,” which plays upon the
traditional Western allegory of woman as nature, woman as vessel, woman as source from which
life flows like water. Ingres’ retrospective made an impact on even the most antagonistic painters. Courbet not only visited the retrospective and wrote about it, but
he was sincerely laudatory about a number of his paintings, and you’re seeing him there on the right make his own realist version, sort of a strange crossover
between the “Valpinçon Bather” seen from the back and “The Source,” which of course he calls
“The Source” in 1868. Renoir too made his own response to Ingres with “Nymph by a Stream” of 1869-70. His portrayal of the mythological subject, a nymph, identified simply
by the garland in her hair is also a traditional
allegory for woman as source. The connection to Ingres is mediated by Rococo prototypes and
Courbet’s frank example of a mature naturalistic body
with touchable living flesh grows even stronger when we
consider Renoir’s “Odalisque” from the same time, which is
regarded as the nymph’s pendant since they share the same format, the same size and the
same inverted composition of a reclining female subject. Renoir didn’t stay in the
Orientalist mode for long, but it had a lasting
impact on his production, for it provided a solution
to the significant problem of representing a realistic female nude from the front without having to resort to gestures of modesty or
without exposing genitalia, which of course could never be realistic. He seized upon the example
provided by Chassériau, whom as you’ll recall
was Ingres’ star pupil and paintings such as
“The Toilette of Esther,” which presents the biblical
heroine stripped to her waist, her gown and white undergarment
gathered around her hips while her gold bracelets and cuffs accentuate her state of undress. By 1875, Renoir had
incorporated this formula in his painting “Before the Bath” in which an everyday Parisian
woman fixing her hair in her bedroom, her shift
pulled down around her waist to expose her breasts replaces the exotic
Middle Eastern concubine, and you’ll also recognize Chassériau’s, it’s got a reference to underarm hair. But that same year, 1875, Renoir transported the nude outdoors, and from that point forward,
the sensuous depiction of contemporary everyday
French women bathing in lush outdoor settings
became his mainstay. In his revolutionary “Study,” the white undergarment clutched
around the figure’s hips draws attention to the gold
bracelet and prominent ring breaking the illusion of a
timeless, classical Arcadia and firmly planting this
respectable married woman in the here and now. The composition once more
draws from Courbet’s example, such as the “Bather
Sleeping Near a Brook,” especially the virtuoso
portrayal of sunlight splashing shadows across the nude’s chest, yet the dazzling Impressionist
aesthetic of rapidly applied and fluid brushstrokes,
eye popping palette, sensitive rendering of plein air effects and the figure perfectly integrated into its background
belongs entirely to Renoir and represents a breakthrough
in his treatment of the nude. With “Study” Renoir finally
achieved what he’d been seeking since his days in Gleyre Studio, a perfect balance between
tradition and modernity, between serious painting
and avant-garde innovation. And though his Impressionist
style would evolve in the decades ahead, Renoir
maintained this construct for depicting the body as a
real, palpable, sensual object within a lush, natural
setting until his death. It is a lasting homage to Courbet, and through him, Manet and Ingres, as he took up their reigns as one of the 19th century’s last great painters of the female nude. Thank you. (audience applauds)

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