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The Victorian Nude was an unusual choice for the inaugural exhibition at Tate Britain since it treated a subject rarely identified with nineteenth-century British culture. After all, despite a pile of books in recent years revealing the scope of Victorian sexuality, the popular correlation between prudery and the Victorian age remains strong. By choosing the saucy word “Exposed” for the exhibition’s title, the museum drew attention to the subject’s previously neglected character and to its inevitable prurient associations.
In fact, the Victorian nude has been the focus of scholarly attention in surveys of Victorian art and in the many monographs devoted to artists who occasionally painted the subject. Most importantly, Alison Smith, the principal curator of this exhibition, wrote The Victorian Nude: Sexuality, Morality, and Art, an engaging methodical examination of the theme published by Manchester University Press in 1996. Her extensive research provides the scholarly foundation for Exposed: The Victorian Nude. Despite these earlier publications, this exhibition and its catalogue are most welcome, and the sheer wealth of material is invaluable. The early paintings and drawings by William Etty and William Mulready; the Pre-Raphaelite works by John Everett Millais, Edward Coley Burne-Jones, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti; the “classical” subjects by Frederic Leighton, Albert Moore, and George Frederic Watts; and the modern “boudoir nudes” of Walter Richard Sickert were perhaps to be expected. But even more valuable because seldom seen are the works by lesser-known artists such as John Collier, Herbert Draper, Annie Swynnerton, and William Stott, among others. While the focus of the exhibition is upon painting and drawing (with the female nude taking prominence), sculpture, prints, caricature, photography, and film are also included and add great depth and entertainment value to the undertaking. It is especially informative to see various popular artifacts, including porcelain reproductions of major sculptural figures and photographic images of the so-called pose plastique phenomenon, which recorded female performers wearing “fleshings” (body stockings) to simulate nude figures derived from well-known paintings or sculptures.
Although labeled Victorian, the exhibition extended beyond Queen Victoria’s reign (1837–1901) in both directions—from J. M. W. Turner’s drawing, A Copulating Couple of ca. 1805, to Gwen John’s and Sickert’s nudes of ca. 1910–11. The Victorian label was also expansive with regard to nationality. There were examples by foreign-born artists working in England (Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Alphonse Legros, Theodore Roussel, John Singer Sargent, and James Abbot McNeill Whistler, for example); nudes exhibited in London by foreign-born artists who were not residing in Great Britain (such as Jean-Léon Gerôme and Edgar Degas, as well as the silent films company Pathe Freres); photographs of young boys produced by German artists living in Sicily (Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden and Guglielmo [Wilhelm von] Plüschow, whose works were collected avidly by English gentlemen-connoisseurs); nudes produced by English-born artists living in Paris (such as John). Even the definition of “the nude” was expanded to include not only undraped and partially draped bodies and those wearing “fleshings,” but also, in the case of Watts’s The Wife of Pygmalion (1868), a woman with only one bare breast revealed.
These images aroused contradictory responses in viewers at the time. Some critics fueled by evangelical fervor saw only immorality in such sensuous imagery—an immorality that they believed inevitably infected the artists who produced the objects, the models who posed, and the viewers who gazed upon them. Others, including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who collected nudes with enthusiasm, saw such works as “elevated,” aligning British art with the highest manifestations of Western culture stretching back to antiquity.
The works were arranged neither chronologically nor stylistically, but rather in six categories corresponding to rooms painted in deep Victorian colors: “The English Nude,” “The Classical Nude,” “The Private Nude,” “The Artist’s Studio,” “Sensation! The Nude in High Art,” and “The Modern Nude.” These categories were far from clear cut, and in some instances a work, depending upon one’s interpretation, could have appeared in more than one category. The private and the modern nudes were at times interchangeable, and much could (and did) fall under the “classical” label. “The English Nude” was a particularly slippery category; it entailed an effort on the part of British artists in the early nineteenth century to establish a national expression for the nude, then primarily associated with the antique. Artists looked to Titian’s Venetian nudes and Peter Paul Rubens’s Flemish figures for inspiration. In this way Etty’s “Venetian/Flemish” nudes became ideal examples of the so-called English nude. While the label worked for the fleshy Anglo-Saxon nudes inspired by British history or literature, it was confusing for others.
“The Classical Nude” involved the revival of interest in the subject in the late 1860s, led by Frederic Leighton, who exhibited Venus Disrobing in 1867 (not included here), a work inspired by both antique sculpture and contemporary French Salon paintings. Moore, Watts, Whistler, Edward John Poynter, and others contributed to this vein. Though the category was defined by works introduced in the late 1860s followed by those adopting the formal concerns of Aestheticism, earlier works were also included—for example, an 1845 porcelain reproduction of John Gibson’s sculpture of Narcissus. Sadly, Gibson’s provocative Tinted Venus, with its controversial lifelike color, was not.
As one might expect, “The Private Nude” encompassed works not intended for public display: Turner’s sketches of copulating couples, Lewis Carroll’s images of young girls, Simeon Solomon’s explicit drawing of bisexual love, and Linley Sambourne’s photographs of female models in casual poses. Early films shown in a room visible only through a peephole drew the largest crowds in this section. But the category also included several works that were originally shown in public exhibitions. Etty’s Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges appeared at the Royal Academy in 1830. Its small scale and voyeuristic theme evidently earned it a place in this category. In contrast, the vivid naturalism of Annie Swynnerton’s Cupid and Psyche, shown at the New Gallery in 1891, placed it within the field of “The Private Nude.”
“The Artist’s Studio” displayed drawn and sculpted sketches of the nude, culminating in various formal treatments of the Pygmalion myth. Burne-Jones’s paintings took pride of place here. But by far the showiest category in the exhibition was “Sensation! The Nude in High Art,” which featured works labeled “kitsch” by an earlier generation of art historians. Huge canvases depicting smooth, glistening female bodies with flowing tresses (though nary a pubic hair in sight) greeted viewers in this room; among its highlights were Herbert Draper’s The Gates of Dawn (1900) and Arthur Hacker’s The Cloud (1901). Early Hollywood films or, more recently, the commercial videos of Britney Spears or Jennifer Lopez seemed most closely aligned with these astonishing productions, rather than the contemporary French Salon paintings of Alexandre Cabanel or the avant-garde nudes of Paul Gauguin. Blatant sensuality was the keynote, especially with subjects involving tortured, tethered saintly women (Herbert Schmalz’s Faithful unto Death (1888) and Ernest Normand’s Bondage (1895)). In the face of these “sensational” paintings, the modern audience—notoriously difficult to shock—appeared stunned and/or amused, as if indulging in guilty pleasure. Though traditional illusionistic skills abounded, modern aesthetic standards were absent. Keeping in mind that it was not so long ago that Pre-Raphaelite works were derisively dismissed, can these paintings, still generally viewed as evidence of vulgar Victorian taste, be rehabilitated as admirable art? Or, have they been already?
In comparison, “The Modern Nude” brought viewers down-to-earth. Chilly studios and dark bedrooms with rumpled bed sheets were the settings for unidealized figures by Sickert, John, and William Orpen. Lesser-known artists also offered compelling examples. Others depicted nudes in plein air, often with impressionistic brushwork (see Philip Wilson Steer’s A Summer’s Evening (1888)). Many featured boys: Henry Scott Tuke’s August Blue (1893–94) projected an optimistic (homosocial) vision of healthy British youths swimming in a sunlit bay, while Stott’s A Summer’s Day (1886) startled viewers with its stark depiction of gaunt young boys on an ominous empty beach, suggesting a cheerless future rather than the promising nationalistic vitality one would expect to find encoded in such imagery.
The essays in the catalogue bring attention to the broad social context surrounding the production of the nude: its changing reception over time and its close ties to the larger moral and sexual issues of the day, including the condition of female models (still suffering indignities here where Orpen’s model Emily Scobel [cat. 166] is referred to by her first name, he with his last). Indeed, far-ranging issues are drawn into the analyses: prostitution, public health and cleanliness, fashion, homosexuality, pelvimetry (classification of racial and social types by their pelvis), eugenics, ethnography, obscenity laws, popular entertainment, and much more. The introductory essay by Alison Smith (“The Nude in Nineteenth-Century Britain: ‘The English Nude’”) assembles the conflicting and contradictory issues attending the subject, alerting readers to the different associations attached to the unclothed male (virile athleticism) and female body (immoral sexuality). The playful title of Martin Myrone’s essay, “Prudery, Pornography and the Victorian Nude (Or, what do we think the butler saw?),” belies its serious content, which explores the social and legal issues surrounding pornography, obscenity, and British art in the nineteenth century. In “Thoughts and Things: Sculpture and the Victorian Nude,” Michael Hatt stresses the sheer number of nudes in Victorian sculpture, the very different gender norms for male and female figures, and the fascinating links with the body-building culture following the rise of New Sculpture in the late nineteenth century. Individual entries are full of thoughtful art-historical and social observations, though biographical information is often omitted and sorely missed with regard to lesser-known artists. Lavish illustrations accompany the text.
Kathryn Moore Heleniak
Professor of Art History, Department of Art History and Music, Fordham University