With the problem of the Victorian nude, critics took a "sociological rather than aesthetic perspective." Quick to dismiss these artworks, some critics claimed that in portrayals of the nude, there was no distinction between fine art and pornography. Many who believed in the transfer of social values through art viewed these representations as distasteful and immoral, a sentiment Kenneth Clark describes as the "great frost of Victorian prudery" (Exposed, 11). At the same time, however, inherent in Victorian Britain was the inclination to hearken back to classical times. Representations of the nude were glorified as domestications of great masters — Titian, Michelangelo — and as celebrations of a wonderful past. This dichotomy characterizes the Victorian nude, an artistic motif that lacked definitive reception and place in the art historical timeline of Victorian Britain. In examining two paintings: William James Etty's Two Women Bathing (1820-) and Simeon Solomon's The Toilette of a Roman Lady (1869), we glimpse the various ways nudity is figured, underpinned consistently by the Victorian inclination to allude to the Classical past.
Left: Two Girls Bathing by William Etty. Click on thumbnail for larger image.
William James Etty came under scrutiny for the excessive voluptuousness of his figures, and for "demoting high art to the level of the burlesque,"(Smith, pg. 14). His painting Two Women Bathing undoubtedly triggered such criticism, featuring two nudes, once suggestively balancing on the other. The viewer, a veritable voyeur, receives no acknowledgment from Etty's figures, one enraptured in bathing and balancing, the other facing away. The viewer stands unusually close to the subjects, at a similar distance to the women of Ingres' Turkish Bath (1862). This proximity affords the voyeur some kind of intimacy with the two figures. While they are blissfully unaware of our presence, we gain access to the scene nonetheless. This access is no doubt due to the placement of these women in nature, an artistic choice that allowed artists to "transcend the urban sexualized body [and place] the figure in a pastoral setting so it could be appreciated as a symbolic embodiment of a place of natural formation." (Smith, 14). Thus, by choosing an outdoor scene- conveying the public rather than private sphere, Etty abates the sexuality of the scene.
Right: Toilette of a Roman Lady by Simeon Solomon. Click on thumbnail for larger image.
This is not to say that interior scenes were inherently more suggestive. Simeon Solomon's The Toilette of a Roman Lady (1869) does little to intimate sexuality, despite its private setting — a lady's toilette. The symmetrical scene appears choreographed, the figures mid-action yet static, and their dreamy gazes do little to engage the viewer's attention. In the typical Pre-Raphaelite fashion, the artist depicts a classical scene, the central female a Roman lady. Yet unlike many ninteenth-century artists inferring sexuality through archaizing or geographical references — Gerome's Orientalism, Ingres' odalisque, Solomon fails to create a sexually charged scene. Toilette or otherwise, therefore, setting is secondary to content when it comes to artistic renderings of sexuality. With regards to the Victorian nude, critics were dreaming if they believed a pastoral scene could rid a nude figure of its sexual implications.
1. What accounts for the Victorian nude's emergence as an artistic motif when nudity was often brushed off as French, déclassé? Was it solely a desire to emulate classical artistics tropes?
2. The nude is a motif associated with more Hellenistic cultures — the Greeks, the French. How did the nude become an artistic trope in Victorian Britain?
3. Which of the two paintings discussed evokes sexuality more strongly? Does a natural setting indeed rid the picture of its sexual undertones?
Clark, Kenneth. The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form. Bollingen Series 35.2. New York: Pantheon Books, 1956.
Exposed: The Victorian Nude. Ed. Alison Smith. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2001.
Last modified 27 February 2007