We regard the Victorians as prudish but the situation was far more ambiguous and complex. Although Victorian society was heavily draped, nude bathing by men in lakes, rivers and even the sea was common in the first half of the century. Lynda Nead (Pevsner Chair of History of Art, Birkbeck College) said, ‘the nude tells us more about a society than any other object.” In the 20th century the Victorian nude was forgotten or hidden and we are just beginning to rediscover them.
It was one woman’s crusade that established the Victorian nude and that was Queen Victoria herself. She saw Mulready’s nudes (even thought the story goes that they tried to prevent her seeing the exhibition) liked them and retained Mulready. She was enthusiastic over the female nude, even more than Albert who was more restrained by convention.
1851 saw the Great Exhibition at which the American sculptor Hiram Powers exhibited The Greek Slave. Victoria and Albert bought chained Andromeda (see Andromeda – Women in Chains). Osborn House on the Isle-of-Weight is full of nudes they bought each other. Even Victoria herself is shown in a filmy dress. At Osborn House the largest work is Dyce’s Neptune Resigning to Britannia which was said to disturb the servants.
As a result other pictures were kept for private viewing, such as Josef Gegenbauer’s Hercules and Omphale which the Prince bought in 1844.
Britain did not have a history of nude painting but it was regarded as one of the highest form of art and so painting the nude promoted the British Empire. It was also a test of the artists skill and the Royal Academy taught life drawing in private classes only for men and mostly from the male model.
The female model was associated with prostitution and so was difficult to justify using female models. However, William Etty, a lifelong celibate, spend his life painting and promoting the female nude. He adored Rubens and painted women in many styles including typical Victorian women with the hairstyle worn by Victoria.
There was a tradition of naked bathing in England so that also became a subject and even Shakespearean roles were painted in the nude although hardly justified by the text.
However, Etty’s paintings were controversial and too fleshy for many people, they were described as ‘loathsome putridity’ and ‘conceived in the worst possible taste.’
Pornography was flourishing at the same time, in London centred on Holywell Street, at the end of the Strand (since demolished). It has been estimated that there was one prostitute for every 25 men in London at the time and it was regarded as a threat to the family and the cause of disease and therefore a threat to the Empire.
Art had to find ways to distance itself from any suggestion of pornography. This was done by elevating the nude using the conventions of the classical white marble nude. Classical Greece was associated with the birth of democracy and classical Rome with the development of a constitution and with the development of Empire. The ideal of English classicism was the tall, white, statuesque ‘Grecian’ woman with a straight nose and profile.
In 1862 John Gibson broke the convention by tinting a marble statue flesh colour. It was abhorred even though historians were discovering that the Greeks painted their marble statues.
The French were regarded as the masters of the nude in terms of musculature and proportion. However, the problem was any suggestion of sex as the French were regarded as decadent. However, when the French nude by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), ‘La Source’, was exhibited at the RA in it was a revelation and introduced a new freedom in painting and exhibiting the female nude that lasted for 30 years.
The reason these female nudes were acceptable was that a formula had been found to represent them in an acceptable way, a convention for painting the nude. It had to be:
- pure and innocent (i.e. not suggestive)
- contained (i.e. not suggestive of something else)
- prophylactic (i.e. defending against or preventing the wrong thoughts)
- impermeable (hard and unyielding)
- motionless (like a statue)
- passive, not exciting carnal desire or emotion
- doesn’t meet your gaze (demure and pure)
- generalized (not a specific woman)
- idealised (no marks or moles, the bodies of careworn working class
models were idealised)
- classical (suggested by the surroundings or symbolism)
- evenly finished with no brushwork showing
- pubic region hidden, draped or the pubic hair removed
In summary, a female nude was acceptable if there was a classical element and it could be seen as pure.
An example is the above painting by Lord Leighton. The conventions could be stretched in one direction if they were held in another. For example, we regard the snake as phallic and so suggestive but the strong classical storyline made it acceptable to a Victorian audience.
Evelyn de Morgan, Cadmus and Harmonia, 1877
In most Victorian nudes the gaze is indirect not outward looking enabling us to gaze without being confronted.
Lord Leighton was the greatest nude painter who knew how to paint near the line of the unacceptable but not go over it. He was made President of the RA and was the only artist to be made a Baron, was a friend of Oscar Wilde and a pillar of the establishment. He was a Spartan bachelor, celibate and had no known sex life. His house even had three entrances for the guests, servants and his models so the models could enter go to their own room to disrobe and enter the studio without being seen.
Professional models were regarded by many as prostitutes as they removed their clothes for money but ‘on the whole they were virtuous’ (Curator, Watts Gallery).
This does not mean that everyone found the nude acceptable. A ‘British Matron’ wrote a letter to The Times on 20 May 1885
Is it not a crying shame that pictures are flaunted before the public from the pencil of male and female artists which must lead many visitors to the gallery to turn from them in disgust and cause only timid half glances to be cast at the paintings hanging close by, however excellent they may be, lest it should be supposed the spectator is looking at that which revolts his or her sense of decency?
Walter Crane’s wife would not allow him to use female models so his female nudes are actually modelled by boys. This was noticed by many artists, who recognised the male models he used for his female figures.
Watts was the quintessential Victorian artist. His nudes were regarded as purer than Leighton as they were less hard-lined, more painterly. Some held he was the foremost painter of the nude.
George Frederick Watts, She shall be called woman, c1875-92 (part of the Eve trilogy)
He generalised the individual to the abstract form. His model was ‘Long Mary’ (Mary Bartley, the Princep family’s housemaid). She modelled for Watts during the 1860s and he used her more than any other model. He drew many sketches of parts of her body and then assembled the painting from the parts. He never painted from the nude model. One sculpture is created from three parts, the head is based on Long Mary, the front on a cast and the back on a male model to give it power.
With some exceptions, as we saw above, by 1885, nude goddesses were regarded as healthy, clean and just what the Empire needed and nude painting became big business. However, floating the rules caused trouble.
Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Phyllis and Demophoon, 1870
Burne-Jones caused a scandal as it showed a penis which was classical but was not acceptable to the Victorians, no matter how small it was. Also, ‘the skin tone is slightly green’ suggesting disease (Alison Smith, Tate Gallery). He was so upset or annoyed by the scandal that he exhibited no more nudes for seventeen years.
Millais’s Knight Errant (1870, Tate Britain) went too far. The man was clothed (one might almost say clothed in a male ‘chastity belt’) however the nude woman suggested seduction or rape. People also looked at the woman’s face colour and said she was flushed, feverish and excited. It should be remembered that the picture we see today has been modified. Because of the criticism Millais cut out the woman’s head from the canvas and added a new piece and painted what we see today. The original head he reused and re-clothed as The Martyr of the Solway.
John Everett Millais, The Martyr of the Solway, 1871
We can see that originally the other unacceptable aspect of the painting was that the woman was looking towards the knight. Millais seemed unaware that it would cause any controversy and appeared to have an innocent view of the work. In the exhibition catalogue he wrote, ‘The order of Knights errant was instituted to protect widows and orphans, and to succour maidens in distress’.
The martyr of the title of the second painting was Margaret Wilson, a member of the Free Church who refused to recognise the established Church of Scotland. The painting shows her chained to rocks on the Solway Firth where she and a friend were condemned to death by drowning in 1685.
Lyn Nead points out that sexual depravity and corruption were regarded as important to avoid as they could ‘undo the imperial project’. Note that on the Albert Memorial many of the statues are nude including the personification of Asia who is raising her veil, signifying allowing access to Britain.
In 1877 Leighton produced Athlete Wrestling with a Python, made of bronze rather than marble. It signified ‘the Empire keeping corrupt forces at bay’ according to Alison Smith.
G.F. Watts, Physical Energy shows a heroic, imperial, healthy British body, not a decadent foreigner. It now stands in Cape Town.
Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) received a grant of $5,000 from a US university and set up 36 cameras with trip wires to record animal locomotion. It is doubtful if his interest was purely scientific as many pictures show what appears to be an ‘erotic suspended moment’ that he has constructed. The body becomes a living body in art for the first time. At a stroke he removed all the trappings of classicism and approached the body with a new scientific vision.
By the 1890s, the old style nude was looking out-of-date and the classical references were regarded as hypocritical. Why not show modern bodies, naked where the occur – in bedrooms, studios and brothels?
We have many examples. Suddenly the nude became free from the need to be patriotic and morally correct.
Theodore Roussel, The Reading Girl, 1886-7
Although the ‘Victorians were at least trying to understand the body’, ‘they did not have Freud to help them understand sex’.
Sickert, La Hollandaise, c1905
Philip Wilson Steer, Seated nude: The Black Hat , c.1900
Gwen Johns, The Nude Girl, 1905
As we have seen male and female nudes were treated as entirely different projects. Was the male nude ever judged to be a prostitute? See Bodies of Modernity, Tamager on the male body (also note the Caillebotte).
Finally consider Arthur Hughes, April Love for another approach to sexuality. Arthur Hughes was London born and went to the School of Design at Somerset House. He read The Germ and became interested in Millais and met Hunt and Rossetti. He was well thought of by the PRB. He became an illustrator but died a recluse leaving 800 paintings. April Love was painted in 1855-6 and exhibited at the RA in 1856. It shows his interest in colouring and detail. It is based on a poem by Tennyson called the Miller’s Daughter (full poem) and Hughes included the lines:
Love is hurt with jar and fret.
Love is made a vague regret.
Eyes with idle tears are wet.
Idle habit links us yet.
What is love? for we forget:
Ah, no! no!
Millais also illustrated the Miller’s Daughter:
Hughes liked to paint his wife and they had a five year engagement, is there a
connection with the Miller’s Daughter?
The ivy clinging to the oak suggests fertility, femininity, clinging to the masculine oak. The strong blue of the dress was a Hughes trademark and it is different from the Millais blue. In the Victorian meaning of flowers ivy means ‘Wedded Love, Fidelity, Friendship, Affection’.
Are they violets on the floor? Violets in the Victorian meaning of flowers mean
modesty or watchfulness, faithfulness, or ‘I’ll Always Be True’. But does ivy kill the oak it clings to?
[This page is based on my notes of a course given at Birkbeck College, University of London, by Carol Jacobi in 2006/2007. It also uses ideas from the film ‘Empire of the Nude’, 2002, Ben Macpherson, an Omnibus programme.]