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A Hidden Sex Drive May Be the Motivation The Causes Great Artists to Paint Nudes

"Do Nudes Give Artists Subliminal Kicks?"

by Clement Reid

Vol. 16, No. 3,  August 1959

    I'm an artist and I mix with other artists and photographers who specialize in portraying the nude form. When we talk shop there's one question that always baffles us: why does nude painting or photography have to be so strongly defended against a minority of people who regard our art with either prim revulsion or lecherous leers?
    Surely these tight-lipped, leering critics should be long to the last century, when human beings were only visible, except in moments of greatest intimacy, as suits and dresses from which faces and hands emerged. Swim suit fashions, advertising, magazines, movies and TV have changed all that, even in our comparatively chilly climate.
    In hotter countries, where people show more of themselves, the shocked surprise or hearty guffaw at the sight of nakedness would hardly be understood at all. Or so we must judge from the many thousands of nude paintings and sculptures that Southern and Oriental civilizations have left behind.
    What explains the average artist's fondness for nude painting? Let's first admit that the sexual motive does exist, and then discount its importance since so little painting, and no great art, has been conceived in such a spirit. The chief reason is that the human body, of all things in Nature, is the object of man's strongest and most intimate interest. A woman's nude body is the one thing that always has and always will hold abiding interest for any normal male.
    By studying the nude an artist learns many of the secrets of design, his first and foremost problem as a painter. What else in Nature is more harmoniously made? Seas, hills, trees, flowers, even animals, do not have that perfect balance of the parts within the whole that a nude figure has and that a picture should also have.
    So, to the artist or photographer, the nude is even more than an object of deep human interest. We may call it his spiritual workshop, the chief source of his pictorial knowledge. Anybody who has seen a painter working from the model for days will recognize the objective, intellectual element in his searchings.
    Yet North American painters are at a disadvantage, for our clothes are thicker and a state of even semi- nakedness is often considered unusual.
    Titian's Venus, lying unclothed in a room without glazed windows, looks warm and comfortable, as if undisturbed by open doors and chilly drafts, as if unaware that there's anything very remarkable about her nudity.
    Here in the northern atmosphere. however, the studio heater is always lurking just outside the picture, and often the models have a decided air of being undressed, or of being women who stand or lie unclothed not because they want to but because the artist is paying them a fat fee to do so.
    In other countries the beauty of a nude or seminude woman has been a tremendous inspiration to painters. For about 400 years European painters have demonstrated their highest technique in paintings of women. Some of these painters have become so obsessed with one particular woman that they have painted her nude over and over again.
    How many times did Rubens paint Helena Fourment, clothed and unclothed, as herself or as all three goddesses in Judgment of Paris? How often did Simonetta Vespucci pose in the nude for Botticelli before he produced his masterpiece, Venus?
    Even King Louis XV of France, an enthusiastic amateur painter, had a favorite model for his nudes. Her real name was never known but Boucher, the artist, painted her in the nude as La Petite Morphi.
    According to Casanova, Louis saw Boucher's painting and asked to meet the original. So they washed La Petite Morphi in hot water and took her to Versailles, where the king locked her up in his private seraglio. After a year she gave birth to a son.
    Favorite of the famed English painter, George Romney, was Emma Hart, known to history as Lady Hamilton. To all artists she sat for she was an inspiration, but to George Romney she became an obsession. For several years he refused commissions and reduced the number of his sitters so that he could paint Emma in every state of undress and attitude.
    Many times he painted her as herself, and her lovely body and face could express the whole range of the passions.
    Three years after first meeting Romney, while still the mistress of the Honorable Charles Greville, she was whisked away to Italy by Sir William Hamilton and later became the inspiration of Britain's most famous sailor, Lord Nelson.
    Another working girl whose beauty attracted artists like moths to a candle was the ill-fated Elizabeth Siddall. She worked as a milliner's assistant in a rat-ridden alley off London's Leicester Square when Walter Deverell, the pre-Raphaclite, found her in 1852. She posed for several of his nudes until others started bidding for her services, including Millais and Rossetti.
    One of the poses Millais asked of her probably sowed the seeds of her future ill-health. He wanted her as Ophelia, drowning in the river but kept afloat for a while by her skirts. Elizabeth obediently posed not only in the Ewell River at Kingston but in a bath. She caught a chill which later developed into tuberculosis.
    She owes her immortality, however, to Rossetti. She lived with him nine years before he offered to marry her, but though she satisfied the artistic side of his nature she was never capable of satisfying him physically. For that he went to Franccs Cornforth, later known as Fanny Schott, a blowsy-eyed slut with a flabby figure and corn-yellow hair. He was probably with her on the night of February 12th, 1862 when Elizabeth took an overdose of laudanum. Rossetti, stricken by remorse, flung into her grave the manuscript of his finest poems.
    The famed artist Renoir, who organized his life completely to his own satisfaction, was probably one of the happiest men who ever lived, and the model he used for his nudes was the greatest factor in his happiness. Renoir had no social ambitions, no expensive desires. His pleasure was painting a beautiful woman, eating excellent food, and dozing in the sun. The girl he called Gabrielle was his cook, household slave, model and mistress, lie painted her many times.
    Then there was the romance of Goya and the dark-haired Duchess of Alba, the greatest lady of her day--1795--in Spain, with a string of titles, a fortune, and a reckless, defiant spirit.
    The Duchess was 33 and beautiful and Goya was nearing 50 and a family man when he first painted her, in the nude.
    Later he painted her again, covered with some filmy material. Court gossips said that when the Duke of Alba heard about the nude portrait, called The Naked Maja, he set out, sword in hand, to confront the insolent artist. Forewarned, Goya quickly painted the second, clothed portrait and calmly told the furious husband that this was the only painting he had done and that it really didn't look like the Duchess at all.
    The Duke died the following year and Goya left his wife and children. He and the Duchess spent many months together. Six years later she died suddenly; some said she was poisoned by the jealous Queen Maria Louisa.
    Beautiful Ava Gardner is now starring as the Duchess of Alba in the movie "The Naked Maja."
    Each artist has his own thoughts about women. Some like the female figure fat, some like it lean, narrow-chested and stringy. Individualists by long tradition, artists of different periods rarely saw the same marks of beauty in the women who posed for them.
    The Venus of Willemdorf, for instance, now reposing in the American Museum of Natural History, was fashioned by a Cro-Magnon artist about 20,000 years ago. Woman to him was merely a symbol of fertility and maternity. Her face was of no importance and he dismissed it by producing only the contour of her head, concentrating on her large, bulbous breasts, wide hips and strong thighs.
    Rubens preferred what he described as "well-fed warmth" in a woman. His interpretation of the Judgment of Paris glows with it.
    Thomas Craven says of Rubens: "His conception of the fullness and richness of life could never have been expressed in the forms of thin women He needed size, health and luxuriantly developed wide girthed bodies in a world of three dimensions; everything that was the opposite of the mean, the stunted and the dieted."
    Life at court during the reign of the artistic Louis XV (1715-1774) was characterized by an intense love of sensual pleasure, gaiety and frivolity bordering on frenzy. A well-bred man was meant to enjoy life to the full. An abundance of attractive women was considered essential to his happiness.
    This light--hearted men's world is interpreted in Fragonard's The Pursuit, one of six panels ordered by Madame duBarry, commander-in-chief of the King's mistress es. The women depicted by Fragonard are the epitome of fragility, ready to he crushed in the arms of the aggressive male. Where Rubens saw an earthly solidity in the female figure, Fragonard saw airy delicacy, smoothly encased in shimmering sat--in and creamy lace.
    The Greeks, on the other hand, glorified the female form in such familiar examples of classic art as the Venus de Milo. The Venus is represented as a beauty of maturity, dignity and simplicity, the ideal woman for the sophisticated Greek male. Her perfectly proportioned shoulders and breasts are still the acme of perfection, even by today's peculiar standards, but her generous waist and hips are scorned by our modern masters of the nude.

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