Exposed: The Victorian Nude by Sherry Ross

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Exposed: The Victorian Nude

by Sherry Ross

I was completely delighted and taken by surprise when I visited the current show "Exposed: The Victorian Nude," at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The show opened September 6th (2002) and will run through January 5th (2003). What surprised me was the unbiased historical approach to the theme of the show. Most museums that dare to present 19th century Victorian and Academic art have accompanying text that is tongue-in-cheek or satirically critical of the work. They justify the fact that they have even allowed themselves to offer the exhibit on the grounds that it deserves "some" historical representation, and then they poke fun of the work in the usual manner, calling the pieces trite but titillating, or academically impressive (said derisively) but saccharine and inane. But the Brooklyn exhibit organized by Tate Britain gives serious insight into the Victorian controversy of nudity and sexuality. The text for the paintings (and in the beautiful catalogue) explains, with respect, what the artists of that era were trying to do. Yes, there was trivial and overtly erotic art being produced, and some is displayed playfully to broaden the historical theme that the show adheres to, but what era doesn't produce minor works?

What delighted me with this show, is that so many of the paintings on exhibit are great and powerful masterpieces charged with the energy of the passionate and masterful artists of that time who were taking risks. Although these better paintings fit perfectly into the theme of Victorian nudity, they are multi-faceted in their themes and impact. These 19th century artists were pushing boundaries and often creating great art. To use the nude body in ways never allowed before in history, and yet to accomplish this without seeming either prudish or pornographic, was something the greater of these artists were able to achieve. These masterpieces were shocking to the Victorian sensibility, yet presented in a way that allowed the public to become accustomed to the changing times. This helped to free the Victorian artist from historical restraints. How Modernist critics can attack Victorian and Academic art for being only silly, prudish and titillating is "exposed" by this show as faulty thinking and a lack of true historical insight. Pushing boundaries and doing it with taste is what the better of these artists achieved. How can the modern critic, such as Mr. Kimmelman of the New York Times, be so hypocritical that he can actually not see that these artists were extending boundaries and their own artistic freedom? Isn't that the exact "call to arms" of all art movements of the 20th and 21st centuries — to push the envelope and free the artist! Are today's critics that ignorant of 19th century history, so jaded by the aftermath of the "sexual" revolution, the content of movies and advertisements, and the meaningless shock value of most modern art, (often sexual in content) that they cannot see the freshness of what the Victorians were all about? Are they so caught up in their own rhetoric and agendas that they cannot see past their own limited aesthetics into the aesthetics of another time? I think so. The art critics of our established institutions seem fixated on a system of artistic analysis that is out dated. They all seem to say the same thing (the safe thing). It was all already said in the 50's and 60's and it was wrong then. It is time to grow up and look back on the 19th century with a fresh eye and an opened mind. That is why, after seeing the show, I so enjoyed the triple entendre of the shows title: "Exposed: The Victorian Nude." There is of course the obvious use of exposed, to mean naked. But the show also exposes the decidedly incorrect view of Victorian nudity by the living critics of our day. The contemporary critic has come to the show assuming that the use of the word "exposed" refers only to the frivolous and lascivious mentality of the Victorian mind, a mind obsessed with sex. Yes, there was much sexual obsession and debate in Victorian society, but out of it came a new way of thinking that we now, ironically, call modern. As a result of this obsession, there were both productive and nonproductive social responses. This trend continues today. The show points this out. But what the show really exposes is our present day misconception of what the obsession was all about, its outcomes, and our inability to differentiate between the great art of that time and the not so great because of our modern prejudices.

The show exposes this flaw in our own thinking, with finely collected data. It intrigues me that so many critics will show respect for the skills and traditions of painting in prior centuries and then ignore the fact that these very same skills had reached their peak by the mid-eighteen-hundreds. The focus instead, for them, is on a sensibility they cannot comprehend because of their ingrained prejudices. They miss the point — that many of the great paintings of this period were both revolutionary in their subject matter and painted like no else had ever painted before. This of course includes a broader range of work than the present show at the Brooklyn Museum could possibly encompass. I think the very fact that this pinnacle of skill lay so close to the 20th century's deliberate philosophical destruction of those very skills, brought the greatest fury from modern critics on these highly trained artists. It is safe to see the value of masterly painting in other centuries, but a threat to see it so close to home. After all, there are very few today who call themselves artists who can truly paint. Quite frankly, most can't even draw. That must be quite a blow to one's ego if one calls himself or herself an artist. A child would expect an artist to be able to draw. But oh, excuse me, he or she is a child, not a sophisticated adult brainwashed in 20th century rhetoric. But it is now the 21st century, and a newer generation is beginning to view of 19th century and academic art with a fresh and appreciative eye. The Brooklyn Museum should take pride in participating in the reeducation of a new and growing audience.

The show includes about 150 paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, popular illustrations, and a humorous erotic (but not pornographic) film from the period. The exhibit is presented in six categories to make its theme more readily comprehensible to the audience. 1. The English Nude (which focuses on the main debate of Victorian nudity then and now) 2. The Classical Nude (a renewed and publicly acceptable way of presenting the nude to the Victorian public) 3. The Private Nude (in which the individual artist pushed the boundaries a bit further) 4. The Artist's Studio (the relationship between the artist and the model) 5. The Nude in High Art (intense subject matter, often serious, that included nudity and sometimes social judgments. This work aroused the animosity of religious and moral groups whose fanaticism actually helped the public overcome their anxieties of nudity even further) 7. The Modern Nude (artists born in the 19th century who continued to paint into the 20th. Among these categories we discover a fine showing of strong masterpieces. There are works by Frederic Leighton , Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema , Dante Gabriel Rossetti , Edward Coley Burne-Jones , Evelyn De Morgan , Herbert Draper , Anna Lea Merritt , Annie Swynnerton , John William Waterhouse , Philip Hermogenes Calderon , Edward John Poynter , Albert Moore , George Frederic Watts and Earnest Normand . There are also fabulous drawings by William Mulready , William Holman Hunt , Ford Madox Brown , and John Everett Millais . Among the more moving sculptures are Frederick Leighton's An Athlete Wrestling with a Python, and his Sluggard. Joseph Pitts Sir Calepine Rescuing Serena, Frederick William Pomeroy's The Nymph of Loch Awe, and Robert Wiederman (Pen) Barrett Browning's Dryope Fascinated by Apollo in the Form of a Snake. He was the son of the poets Robert and Elizabeth Browning.

John William Waterhouse (English, 1849-1917)
Oil paint on canvas , 1885
186 x 117.5 cms | 73 x 46 1/4 ins
Tate Gallery, London

There are several paintings that had a particularly strong impact on me and remain memorable. First is John William Waterhouse's painting of Saint Eulalia. The painting depicts, in a startling manner, the murder of a 12-year-old girl, Eulalia, who was martyred because she refused, as a Christian, to worship the imperial Roman gods. The 4th century Spanish poet, Prudentius, places her death in 313 AD, and tells of the miracle, signaling her martyrdom, that occurred after her death-it began to snow and doves flew out of her mouth. He further describes her torture as being brutal, with hooks tearing her flesh and her body being burnt with torches. Waterhouse has been inspired by this poem as is explained in the exhibit's text. Waterhouse does something remarkable in this painting. He eliminates the gory signs of her extreme torture, and yet impresses upon the viewer the horror of what has happened. She is partly undressed, her upper torso bare, but her lower body is covered in her torn brown-red and dirty garment. Waterhouse has taken poetic license in order to give the child dignity and yet convey the suffering and indignities she endured. He makes a masterful use of perspective by placing Eulalia in the foreground. He uses extreme foreshortening which he accomplishes with masterful skill, a very difficult feat. Eulalia, in this foreshortened pose, is lying headfirst on her back and her image takes up one third of the large canvas. The viewer is looking up the length of her body to her legs that are turned slightly askew to the viewer's left. Her blood red hair (a red with dark burnt umber and sepia) is reminiscent of spilt blood beginning to age. The hair flows toward the viewer almost to the edge of the canvas. The thin layer of snow on the ground accentuates the sense of drying blood, as does her garment, which gives, at second viewing, the look of flayed skin. The snow is of course also a symbol of her virginity. The doves that have issued from her mouth are now just ordinary doves and flit about her indifferently. This adds to the dead child's sense of abandonment. On her left wrist remains a piece of tied rope, symbol of her torture. As your eyes move up the canvas you are met with the shaft of the makeshift cross she was roped and nailed to on your right, not far from where the she lies. Moving further away from Eulalia, the remainder of the upper canvas depicts Roman guards and a cluster of people on steps that lead to the square where Eulalia lies dead. The backdrop is of Roman columns. The crowd seems only to be there out of curiosity. One figure, a woman in white robes, kneeling, head down, at the top of the steps, grieves. One wonders if it is a sister or maybe the girl's mother, forbidden to go to Eulalia by the foremost guard who holds a spear. There is absolutely nothing sexually titillating about this painting. It takes an overwhelming stretch in a critic's mind, in order to fit this image into a predetermined aesthetic agenda, to see otherwise. The all-over coloration of the painting is in hues of white, gray, brown, gray-blue and the dark drenched reds. This powerful image will stay with me.

Herbert James Draper (English, 1863-1920)
Oil on canvas , 1898
182.9 x 155.6 cms | 72 x 61 1/4 ins
Herbert James Draper (English, 1863-1920)
Oil on canvas , 1910
88.9 x 110.5 cms | 35 x 43 1/2 ins

Two canvases by Herbert Draper were part of my delight and surprise in this show. His The Lament for Icarus and his Ulysses and the Sirens are famous images, but I had never seen them in person and they impressed me more than I had anticipated. They are both huge canvases. Draper's vision of Icarus, crashed and dead on the rocks, stays true to the myth and yet has a drama to it that is definitely the making of a more contemporary mind. Nearly 50% of the canvas is covered by the image of Icarus' gigantic, broken, dark wings. The wings are so huge they are cut off at the top left of the canvas and at the middle right. This makes the image seem even larger than life. It is as if we look through a window that is not large enough to hold the view. It is possible that the advent of the camera influenced the artist's eye in choosing this unusual perspective. But the impact is successful, dramatic and highly emotional because of the skill in which the wings are painted. They are so huge, in fact, that they make shadows on much of what remains of the canvas. They are so immense and yet they have failed poor Icarus so completely. Icarus lies dead; a darkening figure still strapped to the useless wings, as a sorrowful and sensual nymph pulls his upper torso gentle towards her. Two other nymphs look on woefully. The canvas creates a heart breaking darkness with small splashes of gold light falling on the nymphs and the far rock wall. The golden light is reminiscent of the hope for freedom that Dadelus had once had for his son Icarus. All life, beautiful or not, comes to an end, and all our grand strivings lead us to the same end. The power in this work of art is the sense of loss it projects. If you read the text in the catalogue, it mentions other layers of possible meaning. Simon Toll makes note that Draper's father died shortly before this painting was executed and he suggests that this painting "may also be a private statement of loss." The text also suggests that the painting may be a tribute to the artist Leighton, who died two years earlier. In Draper's Ulysses and the Sirens, he once again uses a novel perspective. The boat on which Ulysses has strapped himself to the mast and on which his men row in desperation is cut off on the upper left at the sail just above Ulysses and at the lower right at the prow. This method of truncating the ship gives that same sense of size and power. The sirens are beautiful young women, nude of course, and in sharp contrast to the fear on the rowing sailors' faces and the look of mad torment on the face of Ulysses. Ulysses eyes seem glazed over with cataracts. This represents his self-restraint. He will never let himself look at the beauty of the sirens that would seduce him to his death.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema (Netherlands, 1836-1912)
Oil on canvas , 1909
45 x 66.1 cms | 17 1/2 x 26 ins
Tate Gallery, London

I have been concentrating on some of the largest and most impressive pieces in the show, but I must take a moment to mention the smaller but exquisite piece by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema entitled, A Favorite Custom. This piece is most purely sensual and erotic so it is no wonder that The New York Times review used its image to illustrate their point. But their point is wrong because they are not capable of appreciating beauty for beauty's sake or the subtle and remarkable skill of the painter. Today's critics seem able to see color and form for its own sake, and also ugliness-but never beauty. Tadema, when he is great, is able to hold still a moment in time. There is a poetic quietness in this piece that is lush, sensual and therapeutic. One becomes lost in the delicate cadences of light and shadow that fall down the canvas over the figures in the upper half of the canvas, across the perfect marble and tile, over the historically accurate architecture and onto bathing female forms playing in the pool of water. Tadema is the consummate colorist and this work is so beautiful and beautifully painted that it is hard to take your eyes off of it. This not a piece that is intended to have deep layer of complex meanings. Beauty was considered a worthy subject amongst the many subjects these artists tackled. When I look at this piece it brings me a moment of trance-like peacefulness — like I've been to a spa myself! So I say I love this piece unabashedly, just because it is so beautiful.

Annie Swynnerton's vision of Cupid and Psyche was also a delight. The text refers to her as "one of the most daring female painters of the nude," and this painting, although working with a known myth, does have a forth-rightness to it that makes it stand out. It has some of the dream-like qualities of a Burne-Jones , but is painted with sharper edges and a drama that is riveted more in the now than in the unconscious. The young couple fill the canvas to the brim and the blue-black wings of Cupid engulf them both in a feeling that is more womb-like than erotic, although sexual pleasure is definitely part of their relationship. The focus for me is more on their love than their sexuality. The detailing of the black feathers is magnificent and it is quite novel to see Cupid's wings portrayed as black instead of white. It makes their bodies seem even more corporal. The tip of one of Cupid's feathers covers his genitals in respect for Victorian taste, but because for me the painting is more focused on love, the demure approach also feels befitting rather than self-conscious. Sexuality, in this piece, seems to compliment and supplement love and beauty. It is in Modern art, advertisement and movies that sex overwhelms the medium or media as it may be. The Victorians were much more capable of using sexuality with subtly than we are today.

Evelyn de Morgan (English, 1850-1919)
Oil on canvas
Sandro Botticelli (Italian, 1445-1510)
Tempera on canvas , 1485
172.5 x 278.5 cms | 67 3/4 x 109 1/2 ins
The Uffizi, Florence

There are many other enjoyable pieces in the show, some I expected to like such as Burne-Jones Pygmalion series and Rossetti's, Venus Verticordia. These are pieces I am familiar with. That is why I have chosen to concentrate on several of works that were new to me in person and that I so much enjoyed. I will take a moment to mention Evelyn De Morgan's Cadmus and Harmonia which is a strong piece. The text explains that this particular piece is one of the first nudes painted by a woman to appear in public. Cadumus has been turned into a snake and is encircling his wife's body. Anyone familiar with Botticelli's Birth of Venus will instantly recognize Harmonia as being inspired by this image, as the text points out. But the look on Harmonia's face is quite spooky! It is much like a Burne-Jones face, but with more fear and sadness in it than Burne-Jones other-worldliness. The whole image of her lean body, which runs the length of the canvas, entwined with the snake and then combined with her unusual expression, makes it a rather scary image. Yet the image is also evocative of Eve and the story of Exodus, which is yet another interpretation of the look of anxiety on her face.

I will mention one other piece before concluding. Philip Calderon's St. Elizabeth of Hungary's Great Act of Renunciation. Calderon's piece attracted me from a distance. I really didn't know what the subject matter was meant to mean at first. It simply struck me as a strong and interesting piece. It is very dark with what little light there is focused on the nude figure of a woman, who is kneeling at an altar. There are figures immersed in the dark background to the left observing her. As I moved closer I could see that they were two nuns and two monks. I wondered if this was a woman being punished by the church unjustly. It seemed like it might be a social commentary I didn't quite get. I read the text and discovered that the central woman was St. Elizabeth of Hungary renouncing all her worldly wealth and power. This took me by surprise. Calderon has used her nudity to represent her humbling herself honestly before taking on a religious life. It turns out there was much controversy over this painting as well. Outraged Catholics, as the text explains, felt that Calderon had completely misinterpreted the medieval texts that spoke of St. Elizabeth and misused their use of the Latin word nudus by interpreting it as nude. They felt nudus was meant metaphorically, not literally. After learning the facts, I looked at the painting again, and truthfully, it was hard to be outraged. There is a humble quality to St. Elizabeth's gesture that is by far more spiritual than sexual. The fact that the other figures are so submerged in the background could create an aura of voyeurism, but it really doesn't. They are respectful of St. Elizabeth's renunciation and remain discreetly behind. They are there to show their admiration and give their support to her decision. They are not focused on her nudity. She is bathed in the light of God and God does not care at all that she is naked. Calderon has successfully used the nude to say something much more than nudity. His use of the nude, in this non-traditional manner, actually gives the painting a solemnity that is more intense than if the figure of St. Elizabeth was dressed. She has nothing to hide from God and her faith is unequivocal.

Please take the time to see this exhibition. If you are open-minded you might see some of these paintings in a new light and broaden what you can enjoy in the world of art. If you already are a fan of these artists and this period, this show is sure to delight you. Once again, the show will continue through January 5th, 2003, at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY. For more information you may go to their web site at

I would also like to recommend two related books that may be purchased from the Brooklyn Museum. The catalogue for the show, Exposed, the Victorian Nude is an unbiased and well-written survey of the nude in the Victorian era and it is beautifully illustrated. You might also enjoy the biography of J.W. Waterhouse written by Peter Trippi, who is also the Assistant Vice Director for Development for the Brooklyn Museum and the world expert on Waterhouse. Waterhouse is one of the artists featured in the exhibition and painted the work Eulalia that I discussed earlier in this review.