ased on mathematics, proportion, and harmony, the male nude reached perfection in Ancient Greek culture. The nude as an idea continues to play a central, if completely ambiguous, role in Western culture, carrying with it connotations that mingle pride, exhibitionism, and shame. Although the emphasis on male nudity was inherited from the Greeks and superseded by the Romans, Western societies' shame and prohibition of nudity, especially that of male private parts, comes from monotheistic religions (Parker 25). This conflict between the Judeo-Christian and pagan traditions appeared the attitudes toward the erotic art excavated from the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The lowly role of women in Grecian culture is reflected in the supreme emphasis placed on the male nude. Clark's idea of naked vs. nude, or for that matter even clothed, would have been of little importance to the male viewers of the work. Mandatory public nudity at athletic events made the unclothed male body a symbol of athletic heroism, an ideal rather than a cause for indignity.
As all figures became more clothed, the male nude almost completely disappeared from popular culture. As time passed and styles changed, the male figure tried on many new ideals. In fact, the dilemma of how to dress a respectable male in both memorial sculpture and portraiture provides many arguments regarding the question of how a male should be represented in art. Under the masking of mythological or allegorical works, female nudes became favorites of academic painters and the audiences of exhibits at the Royal Academy (Smith 27). The public acceptance of nudes at this time, both male and female, was a fine line which seemed to move a little more each time someone pushed it.
For instance, in the early 1870s Edward Burne-Jones submitted a painting to the Royal Watercolor Society on the mythological subject of Demophoön. Despite its mythological anchoring, Burne-Jones' depiction of a nude male was considered indecent, and resulted in the artist's resignation from the Society. The painting, a depiction of the nude soldier Demophoön held by the Thracian Princess, Phyllis, who has taken the form of an almond tree, was not well received for its immoral display of a nude male and female in the same scene. Critics also attacked the "androgynous lack of distinction between the male and female figures" (Smith 66). Demophoön's lacking masculinity was a product of Burne-Jones' "soft drawing and the weak, frightened and far from heroic pose of the figure" (Smith 66). His exposed but diminutive genitalia resulted in further criticism, both because it was uncovered and because it was lacking all male virilitude. This harsh criticism is surprising given that Demophoön and Phyllis is considerably tame compared to many of the works produced by Burne-Jones' contemporaries, indicating that Victorian values surrounding male nudity were neither stable nor consistent.
One such contemporary was artist Simeon Solomon, praised by Burne-Jones as the "greatest artist of all," who is now more commonly known for being "persecuted for indecency with another man in a public lavatory" (Smith 130). Called by Oscar Wilde a "strange genius", Solomon was known for his classical themes and male nudes. The majority of Solomon's art was confined to the private sphere of the elite. One work, his provocative The Bride, Bridegroom and Sad Love, depicts a heterosexual couple, a young man and woman embracing. This scene, though is not between the betrothed, but between the groom and his lover. The excluded figure of the Sad Love is invited into the scene by the hand of the Bridegroom, who caresses the hand and possibly the phallus of his lover. The bride, captivated by her young Bridegroom, is oblivious to what is happening on the periphery of the picture.
Even though Solomon veiled his painting under a classical representation, the subject matter was completely unacceptable. It was obvious that the artist's drawing, in every means possible, hinted at the "particularly sensitive and dangerous areas of hidden Victorian social mores: the homosexual activity of married men, and the love between older men and youths" (Smith 156). While the focus of the work is on the parting of the two lovers and looks towards a life of natural love culminating in procreation, the past life of corruption with Sad Love cannot be overlooked. The semi-erotic contact, which still exists between the Bridegroom and his young lover, is Solomon's allusion that the love affair between the two men is not over and will persist to be a problem in his marriage. Other works by Solomon, such as Love Amongst the Schoolboys, although not nude works, were strongly homoerotic in their appeal and could only exist in private collections.
Sluggard by Frederic Lord Leighton. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]
Steven Marcus writes in The Other Victorians, "social and cultural taboos against homosexual fantasies are correspondingly stronger than those that act against the heterosexual deviations" (262). In spite of the persecution of homosexuals in Victorian England, men often pursued artists, which portrayed a spiritual and physical "camaraderie" between me (262). The idea of a "male universe" was passed down from previous generations and artists like Michelangelo. Painter and sculptor Frederic Leighton, especially, adopted a new style similar to the Renaissance master. Leighton's development of the "new male" clearly reminiscent of Italian art reached apotheosis in his bronze sculpture, The Sluggard 1886 (Ostermark-Johansen 118). According to Ostermark-Johansen, "The male body rarely forms a subject in its own right, but is more frequently depicted in a dialogue with another contrasting figure. Gradually the nude achieves a sculptural monumentality and independence which reach their apotheosis in the Sluggard — a work solely dedicated to a celebration of the ideal male form" (118). Recalling Michelangelo's Dying Slave, Sluggard adopts the curving posture, contrapposto, as well as the placement of the left arm and head of this Renaissance sculpture. A purely aesthetic object, the small statue conveys no moral or narrative meaning; it is purely a celebration of an idealized male nude. Counter intuitively, it became an icon of male beauty at the time, and found its way onto many Victorian mantelpieces in the form of a plaster copy (Ostermark-Johansen 118). Despite the sculpture's anatomical correctness, it is obvious Leighton obviously placed all emphasis on the aesthetic value of the work. It is also interesting to note the isolation of the figure: he stands alone without a prop or iconographic symbol to place him. Because of this he is timeless and a universal symbol of male beauty. For these reasons and its close alliance with Michelangelo's work, the statue seems to have been saved from someone's private collection, or worse, a public dismissal, and instead became a widely accepted conversation piece.
Erotic Elements in the Art of the Victorian Era
- We Didn't Start the Fire: Discovery of Pompeii's Erotic Art and its impact on Victorian Culture
- Reinstating the Male Nude
- Private vs. Public: Female Sexuality in Victorian Culture
- Slave Eroticism
Marcus, Steven. The Other Victorians; a Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England. New York: Basic Books, 1966.
Parker, Christopher, ed. Gender Roles and Sexuality in Victorian Literature. England: Scolar P, 1995.
Osternmark-Johansen, Lene. Tim Barringer and Elizabeth Prettejohn ed. Frederick Leighton: Antiquity, Renaissance, Modernity. "The Apotheosis of the Male Nude: Leighton and Michelangelo." London: Yale University, 1999.
Smith, Alison ed. Exposed: the Victorian Nude. New York: Watson-Guptil, 2001.
Last modified 18 May 2007