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The Naked Truth About Nudes in Academic Art

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Dante and Virgil in Hell, 1850, Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France. Detail.

Bodies And Erotic Art

The Naked Truth About Nudes in Academic Art

Academicism was a dominant style in European sculpture and painting in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was called so because it was dictated by the French Academy of Art (Académie des Beaux-Arts), which was probably the most influential art school back then. If somebody wanted to make a career, they needed to follow a few simple rules; excellent disegno (drawing), realistic colors, and… lots of naked bodies on canvas!

Naked Body for Practice

Louis Lagrenée, Seated Male Nude, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA. nudes academic art
Nudes in Academic Art: Louis Lagrenée, Seated Male Nude, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

It was a joke, but there was a grain of truth in it. Young students of the Academy had to study anatomy of classical sculptures (mostly naked) and live models (yes, naked) in order to master their drawing skills. Since Neoclassicism was in fashion at the Academy and historical paintings were at the top of the hierarchy of genres, naked bodies were virtually everywhere.

Naked Body of History

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Dante and Virgil in Hell, 1850, Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France. nudes academic art
Nudes in Academic Art: William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Dante and Virgil in Hell, 1850, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.

Historical paintings focused not only on events in history, but also on famous narrative stories. These include mythology or Dante‘s Inferno, for example. They rendered bodies in classical poses like contrapposto and advocated classical, harmonious beauty. Moreover, most bodies were male. However everything changed when Romanticism and Orientalism appeared on the horizon.

Naked Romantic Body

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Pygmalion and Galatea, ca. 1890, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA. nudes academic art
Nudes in Academic Art: Jean-Léon Gérôme, Pygmalion and Galatea, ca. 1890, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

Jean-Léon Gérôme was one of the most famous representatives of Academicism, with a very diverse oeuvre ranging from portraiture to historical painting to Oriental scenes. His attention to detail and photographic ‘realism’ of the depicted scenes, which often were completely imagined and painted in a studio, made his works exquisite and very sought after. He was also a master of covert eroticism; he loved to paint naked women. In order to do this without social reprimand, he would place them into mythological or Oriental contexts. In this way he illustrated and/or inspired the fantasies of many 19th century gentlemen.

(Every time I look at this painting, I am astonished how cheeky Gérôme must have been to place Galatea’s bum cheeks in the center of the composition. I just can’t get over it.)

Naked Symbolic Body

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, The Wave, 1896, Private collection. nudes academic art
Nudes in Academic Art: William-Adolphe Bouguereau, The Wave, 1896, private collection. Wikipedia.

Although Orientalism and Romanticism treated nudity with more free rein than Neoclassicism, they still had some constraints to protect the morals of the viewers (ekhm…). For example, nudes always had their genitals covered. Pubic hair? No way, it was too scandalous, too dirty, too real. In the end, all these naked women were not real women. They were just symbolic/exotic figures which did not have much in common with corset-bound housewives and maids that gentlemen came across in real life.


Learn more about bodies in art:

Magda, art historian and Italianist, she writes about art because she cannot make it herself. She loves committed and political artists like Ai Weiwei or the Futurists; like Joseph Beuys she believes that art can change us and we can change the world.

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