Nudity is a subject which always attracts the attention of the public. In the 19th century artists dared to shift the subject from classical nudes such as Greek and Roman figures, to contemporary naked bodies. To accomodate moral objections, this was often done in the context of exotic orientalist themes.
A perfect example of this conversion from classical nudity to more realistic nakedness is this painting of Gerome.
Jean-Leon Gerome, Pygmalion and Galatea, 1890
Gerome brings a Greek classical scene to life in which the sculptor-prince Pygmalion kisses his masterpiece Galatea. Aphrodite intervenes and the marble statue transforms in a real human body of flesh and blood.
Gerome was a master of 19th century art and had great skills with a huge diversity in subjects. Another example of nudity is the biblical scene of Batseba in which the wife of a soldier bathes on the roof of her house and her naked body is spotted by king David from his nearby palace.
Jean-Leon Gerome, Bethsabée, 1889
The following example is the story of Phryne.This Greek courtisane who lived in Athens 350 BC, provoked her fellow citizens by several ways. She posed for several statues in temples and offered to finance the rebuilding of the walls of Thebes on the condition that an inscription was made “Destroyed by Alexander (the great), restored by Phryne the Courtisane”. Also she undressed in religious festivals to show her beauty. A trial was started and despite the best lawyers, the verdict tended to become a death penalty. In utter despair her lawyer unrobed Phryne and showed her to the jury. The jury was shocked by her beauty and decided that such a perfect God given body must be spared.
Jean-Léon Gérôme, Phryne before the Areopagus, c. 1861
Another Gerome example of coping with nudity is the painting of the slave market in ancient Roman times. The human body is reduced to merchandise and the highest bidder is the owner. Besides the woman who hides her face in shame, an important subject in the painting are the faces of the roman people. There is a mix of greed and lust.
Jean Leon Gerome, Slave market in Rome, 1884
In an overview about nudity, Edouard Manet cannot be neglected. His painting Olympia shocked the audience at the salon, in depicting a naked prostitute who received flowers (probably from one of her customers). Although Manet didn’t dare to depict pubic hair, he made a reference to it by painting the black, hairy cat at the feet of the woman.
Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863
Courbet did not have much reserves about pubic hair and made an even more provocative painting called “the Origin of the world” in which the genitals of a naked woman were exposed with legs spread. Even today this painting is much debated and sometimes forbidden due to its pornographic nature.
Another painting that was too provocative for the jury of the French Salon was the story of playboy Rolla and callgirl Marion, in which the melancholic Rolla is facing bankruptcy and is on the brink of commiting suicide.
Henri Gervex, Rolla, 1878
Because of the rejection by the jury, Gervex exposed the painting in a window of a furniture shop and attracted almost all Paris over a period of three months. The painting therefore boosted his career. We can assume he had pleasure in painting a later work concerning the jury of the Salon performing their work in front of another nude painting.
Henri Gervex, a session of the painting jury, 1885
A more modest approach to nudity comes from Collier. He made a painting of lady Godiva who, according to legend, lived in the early middle ages in Coventry, England. Her husband was wealthy and harsh and imposed oppresive taxes to his tenants. As lady Godiva asked for less harsh taxes, her husband told her that he would only do that after she would ride naked through the streets. The lady astonished friend and foe by really executing her assignment, but her naked ride was performed only after an official proclamation that everyone had to stay indoors and had to close the windows. One person, a tailor called Tom, could not resist the gaze, and made a hole in his shutters to watch the naked lady ride. He was struck blind and would forever live as the famous Peeping Tom.
John Collier, Lady Godiva, 1897
Although a lot of painters did nude painting, I think the Swedish Anders Zorn must be named here. He was a famous painter is his time who did portraits of kings and presidents, but also did a lot of nudes.
Anders Zorn, i-sangkammaren (the bedchamber), 1918
To end this brief tour, we go to the Polish Adam Styka. Born in a family of painters, he also became a great realist painter. One of his specialties was orientalism. He rediscovered the classical theme of nude woman in an orientalist environment and created several paintings of happy people in a sunny world in which nudity transforms to joyfullness.
Adam Styka, The lovers, 1935
A splendid book on this touchy subject is the following :
Some reviews on this book :
“As Philip Carr-Gomm reveals in his academic romp through two millenniums of public exhibitionism from the ancient Greeks to animal-rights activists, you can be naked anywhere. You are only nude if someone is watching. Nakedness on its own is straightforward — it’s the context and the audience of nudity that make it interesting.”
(Times (UK) )
“Not only the best book on its subject, but a marvellous read: racy, compassionate, candid and perceptive.”
(Ronald Hutton, Professor of History, University of Bristol )