Modernizing the Academic Nude

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Birth of Venus, 1879
William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Birth of Venus, 1879
Honore Daumier, “- Still more Venuses this year... always Venuses!... as if there were any women built like that!,” plate 2 from Croquis Pris Au Salon par Daumier, 1864 Art Institute of Chicago
Honore Daumier, plate 2 from Croquis Pris Au Salon par Daumier, 1864. Art Institute of Chicago

Ever since the rediscovery of classical art in the Renaissance, the nude was considered the pinnacle of European “high art.”  It was by far the most popular subject at the annual Salon exhibition, as is indicated by this cartoon by Daumier showing two women at an exhibition, complaining: “Still more Venuses this year… always Venuses!… as if there were any women built like that!,”

As Daumier’s women observe, the academic nude was rarely “realistic.”  This is because academic artists were trained to idealize the body by studying classical sculptures and old master paintings.  The proportions of their figures were expected to be ideal, and their skin was expected to be smooth and flawless (no signs of hair, or anything that might make us think of anything untoward).  Courbet, and his successor Edouard Manet, set out to change all that.

Gustave Courbet, The Bathers, 1853
Musée Fabre, Montpellier

Courbet painted several pictures of nude bathers, which was a genre highly regarded by the Academy.  But Courbet’s nude figures were real, rather than ideal — which shocked his audiences.  His women were fat, and had body hair, when nudes were expected to be ideally proportioned, and smoothly finished (no signs of body hair, thank you!).  This painting of a bather in the woods created a critical uproar when it was exhibited at the Salon of 1853:

“The painter Eugène Delacroix, a member of the Salon jury, deplored “the vulgarity of the forms,” which did not conform to the idealized nudes of Academic art. Critics expressed their disgust at the dirty feet of the models as well as the fallen stocking of the seated model, seen as emblematic of physical as well as moral squalor. When Napoleon III saw the painting at the Salon, he allegedly feigned whipping the buttocks of the standing nude with his riding crop.”
Metropolitan Museum

Read the comparison at 

Edouard Manet, Le Déjuener sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass), 1863
Musée d’Orsay

Edouard Manet followed the Realist principles of Courbet and was instrumental in the development of the Impressionist movement.  This painting was based on Giogione’s  Pastoral Symphony, which Manet had admired in the Louvre.  While Giorgione’s picture is a fantasy, Manet brought the subject up to date by portraying two men in contemporary dress, accompanied by a naked woman in a Parisian park!

Manet’s painting was never exhibited at the official Salon since it had been rejected by the Salon jury; but it was exhibited at the famous Salon des Refuses, where it became the foucs of public ridicule.  Critics found the contemporary subject matter to be scandalous (a naked woman in a park who does not even have the decency to avert her eyes!), but the style was equally offensive.  The background landscape is painted in a loose and sketchy manner, and the foreground figures seem flat because of the absence of half-tones.  To Parisian audiences the picture seemed both crude and lewd, and unacceptable as a work of “fine art.”

Learn more about The Salon des Refuses – Humanities Web

Manet’s Le déjuener sur l’herbe, Smarthistory 

Edouard Manet, Olympia 1863
Musée d’Orsay

This painting created an even bigger scandal at the Salon of 1865.  Based on Titians’ Venus of Urbino, it depicts a contemporary courtesan reclining on a couch.  She gazes haughtily down at the viewer (sizing us up, as if we were prospective clients), while a black maid brings her a bouquet of flowers.  The picture was considered crude in both subject and style – according to Academic rules, nudes were supposed to be mythical, idealized, and yielding!

Manet’s Olympia, Smarthistory  

Edgar Degas, Woman Bathing in a Shallow Tub, 1885
Metropolitan Museum

Edgar Degas also tried to update the Academic nude in his series of bathers.  Instead of depicting mythical Venuses and nymphs, Degas’ portrays real women (presumably prostitutes) going about the mundane task of bathing.  The figures are often ungainly as they squat, bend, and stretch, in movements that come closer to real life than “art.”  Critics found them to be so “ugly” by conventional standards that the artist was accused of misogyny.

In his famous essay on “The Heroism of Modern LIfe,” Charles Baudelaire mused that the nude, “that darling of the artists” could be found in its modern form in the brothel, the bath, or the anatomy theater.  Like Manet’s Olympia, Degas’ nude bathers represented an effort to bring the mythical nude up to date, and into the real world.

Degas’ Woman Bathing in a Shallow Tub, Smarthistory 


Web Resources:

Culture Shock:  Edouard Manet’s Olympia (PBS) 

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