The evolution of 19th-century French art was more dynamic and inventive than any other period in art history. Beginning in the 1860s, the French Académie des Beaux-Arts’ dominating neoclassical style collided with the new avant-garde Impressionist movement, forever transforming the art world. It was not only an aesthetic but also an intellectual shift as issues and ideas became more urban. The most popular creative motif in which this transition may be seen is the female naked figure. During this time, the female body was becoming increasingly accepted, resulting in a surge in nude art all across the world.
The female figure has served as a source of inspiration for artists for decades. Prior to the Renaissance, however, depictions of the naked female human body were almost exclusively relegated to scenes from Greek myths, with the assumption that the ancients’ paganism excused their lack of modesty. This theory was popular at the French Academy in the nineteenth century.
The idealized nude goddess of the Academic tradition was gradually superseded by more modern variants of the female nude as the urban environment and societal expectations evolved. Rather than being an object of desire, female nudity became an art form for paintings. This dramatic transition in nude French art is demonstrated in the works that follow.
LEDA AND THE SWAN BY JEAN-LÉON GÉRME
The Royal Academy was one of France’s most prominent fine art groups, founded in 1768, and it had a huge influence on the period’s creative tastes. Young artists were trained to refine their talents by sketching nude figures from ancient sculpture, and academic art was based on the European tradition and antiquity’s classical art. As a result, the Royal Academy decided that nudity rooted in classicism was the only way for the nude female type to appear in art. This work is a stunning depiction and representation of a female nude body in a mythological scenario by an academic artist.
The fabled beauty Leda is depicted in the novel, which was written by the great French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme. Despite the fact that her storey is about seduction, Gérôme’s investigation of the female nude in this piece takes precedence. However, with its allusion to classical antiquity, such a type would have been celebrated rather than penalised within the Academy’s strictures if depicted in this way.
PEEPING ROOFERS & THE WOMAN’S BATH IN JEHAN GEORGES VIBERT
In these pair of watercolours, academic painter Jehan Georges Vibert shows women as the object of temptation, which are both voyeuristic and charmingly funny. While lazing in an Orientalist milieu that only adds to their sense of exoticism, the women are unaware that they are being watched from above by a group of roofers. Vibert cleverly parodies the imagined gender difference in the nineteenth century. In contrast, Vibert leaves his women fully clothed, appealing to the Academy’s more traditional tastes and emphasising the concept of feminine innocence. Despite the fact that nudity in more exotic, Orientalist situations was gradually becoming acceptable in the eyes of the French public, Vibert’s comic work displays his orthodox tendencies.