The transformation of 19th-century French art was probably more dramatic and innovative than any other period in art history. Beginning in the 1860s, the dominant neoclassical style of the French Académie des Beaux-Arts collided with the new avant-garde Impressionist movement, forever altering the art world. As subjects and viewpoints became more urban, it was not only an aesthetic but also an intellectual change. The female nude figure is the most popular artistic trope in which this transformation can be seen. The female body had become more accepted during this time period, resulting in a boom in nude art all over the world.
For decades, artists have drawn inspiration for their paintings from the female body. However, prior to the modern art period, representations of the naked female human body were almost entirely limited to scenes from Greek myths, with the belief that the ancients’ paganism excused their lack of modesty. This idea prevailed in the 19th-century French Academy.
However, as the urban environment and cultural expectations changed, the Academic tradition’s idealised nude goddess was increasingly replaced by more modern variations of the female nude. Female nudity became an art form for paintings rather than an object of desire. The works that follow demonstrate this remarkable shift in nude French art.
JEAN-LÉON GÉRME’S LEDA AND THE SWAN
The Royal Academy, established in 1768, was one of France’s most important fine art societies, and it exerted enormous influence over the period’s artistic tastes. Academic art was based on the European tradition and antiquity’s classical art, and young artists were taught to hone their skills by sketching nude forms from ancient sculpture. Thus, in the eyes of the Royal Academy, nudity rooted in classicism became the only appropriate way for the nude female type to appear in art. This work is a fantastic illustration and representation of an academic artist exploring the female nude body in a mythological setting.
The novel, which was created by the great French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme, depicts the mythological beauty Leda. Despite the fact that her storey is about seduction, the anecdote is secondary to Gérôme’s exploration of the female nude in this composition. However, when portrayed in this sense, with its nod to classical antiquity, such a type would have been celebrated rather than condemned within the Academy’s strictures.
JEHAN GEORGES VIBERT’S PEEPING ROOFERS & THE WOMAN’S BATH
Academic painter Jehan Georges Vibert depicts women as the target of temptation in this pair of watercolours, which are both voyeuristic and delightfully amusing. The women are unaware that they are being watched from above by a group of roofers while lounging in an Orientalist environment that only adds to their sense of exoticism. Vibert creates a clever commentary on the supposed gender divide in the nineteenth century. Vibert, on the other hand, leaves his women fully dressed, appealing to the Academy’s more conservative sensibilities and promoting the idea of feminine innocence. Although nudity in more exotic, Orientalist settings was increasingly becoming appropriate in the eyes of the French public, Vibert demonstrates his traditionalist tendencies in this comedic work.