Lily Schmidt is a junior at Syracuse University. She is an acting major in the College of Visual and Performing Arts and she is minoring in art history in the College of Arts and Sciences. She has studied at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London and will be moving to New York City soon to begin her acting career.
Eugène Delacroix, considered one of the masters of Romanticism, is well known for his handling of color and movement, as well as for his talent for creating large, dynamic paintings filled with tension and excitement. This is evident in his most popular works such as Liberty Leading the People (1830) and The Death of Sardanapalus (1827). By contrast to these epic masterpieces modelled after the history painting tradition, Delacroix’s Étude de Femme, or Study of a Woman, an etching completed in 1830, is an intimate, personal work of art that speaks to a different tradition—that of the female nude. Delacroix’s print differs from other works in his career, and serves as a node in a very long and evolving discourse about the representation and symbolism of the female nude in western European art.
The nude is one of the most popular and famous symbols in European art, and the female nude has a particular allure that has stood the test of time. From the classical era of ancient Greece to modern day photography and film, the female nude is an incredibly popular subject. How it has evolved over time redirects us to how women, sexuality, and the human body have been viewed at various times in history. While the female nude was popular in ancient Greece, it was a very rare subject in the middle ages. This changed during the Renaissance. In 1510 in Italy the painter Giorgione painted his Sleeping Venus, a fully-frontal nude woman sleeping in an idyllic landscape. The title is key here: it is Venus, the goddess of love. We are looking at a mythical figure in the painting, not at a mortal woman. For a human woman to be seen naked was considered sinful, scandalous, and dangerous, but in the form of a goddess, she was seen as pure. As a result, female nudes, however intimate and real looking, were named after immortal figures from Greek and Roman mythology. Titian’s Venus of Urbino, or Reclining Venus completed in 1538, are examples that would go on to influence later representations of Venus-like figures. These paintings adhered to the rules of decorum regarding classical art and set the standard for representing the female form unclothed.
Delacroix’s etching and where it fits in the trajectory of what the female nude becomes, is bookended by two paintings: Diego Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus (1647-51) and Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1863). The painting that arguably best embodies the many classical traditions of Venus in the nude is Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus, or The Toilet of Venus. Velázquez has combined the existing traditions of a reclining nude with a nude looking at herself in a mirror. However, the Rokeby Venus is noticeably more intimate and personal than the more traditional nudes found in classical antiquity. Venus is not adorned with excessive jewels and has a simple brown bun rather than flowing golden hair. To this end, the image is far closer to reality perhaps than its idealized visual precedents. Despite the more personal and realistic setting, the nude at this time could not be about any normal everyday woman. She had to be recast as Venus. Velázquez’s Venus turns away from us, hiding her breasts, and is only able to see the viewer secondhand through a mirror, while maintaining some level of modesty. While Velázquez has crafted a very intimate, beautiful, and personal portrait, it is still protected by the veneer of a classical subject in its title and the modesty it preserves.
Manet’s Olympia, on the other hand, does away with this veneer. Olympia is not a goddess; she is a recognizable woman, specifically, Victorine Meurent, Manet’s favorite model in the 1860s. She does not turn away from us that so we may only view her back; she faces us full frontal. More than anything though, Olympia looks directly at the viewer with no semblance of modesty. Rather, her gaze is almost confrontational and as she holds her hand over her genitals, the gesture becomes a symbol of control over her own sexuality and body. She is completely on display. Olympia was a very controversial painting. The name “Olympia” was specific to prostitutes at the time. Hervé Lewandowski observes that “the picture portrays the cold and prosaic reality of a truly contemporary subject” leading to a strong reaction from critics for the “profanation of the idealized nude, the very foundation of academic tradition” (Lewandowski).
Eugène Delacroix’s nude falls between these two iconic representations of the female nude. His subject is not named after Venus and is just a woman. However, she maintains a level of modesty found acceptable at the time. She is turned away from us so that we only see her back. Her eyes are closed and her body is partially covered with a bedsheet. The image is intimate and sensual, and less shocking and confrontational. It foreshadows what the female nude will develop into. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Paris Salon was filled with more and more pictures of female nudes. The nude would become something of a craze and following Olympia’s display in 1863, it would be parodied by the acclaimed lithographer Honoré Daumier in his image This year Venuses again…always Venuses!…as if there really were women built like that! (1865).
Even within Delacroix’s oeuvre, Study of a Woman is a detour from how the artist visualized the figure of the female nude in his other works of art. In his famous painting, Liberty Leading the People, the nude is inspired by countless images of classical goddesses. In his Death of Sardanapalus, the women twisting and turning are meant to evoke a kind of eroticism, while also carrying the dramatic fear and violence of the scene. Study of a Woman is very different in its intimacy and quietness. The scene is domestic, calm and quiet. Moreover, the technique of etching deployed by the artist allows for surprising detail and specificity even in such a small composition. There is a heavy contrast between the shadowy room and the clean white sheets of the bed. There is also a noticeable difference in texture between the thick lines meant to show the creases in the fabric, and the soft cross hatching across the woman’s body that draws attention to her soft and small curves. Even the size of the etching produces a very cozy atmosphere. It also indicates that could the images might have been portable, not unlike today’s wallet photos or personalized phone backgrounds of loved ones.
The idea of female nudity in art is a subject that we are still discussing and debating. Controversy arises when art that celebrates the female under a male gaze is allowed, but a woman’s celebration of her own form is chastised and often censured. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has very subjective ways of rating movies and famously shies away from displaying female pleasure on the screen, as seen in This Film is not Yet Rated (2006), a documentary about the MPAA’s rating system. The most famous actresses of the day, such as Jennifer Lawrence, Cate Blanchett, and Meryl Streep, among many others, all have different opinions on whether presenting oneself naked is valid for the sake of art, or simply exploitative and meant to grab audience attention. With nudity in film and television becoming more prominent and accepted (I can hardly think of a Game of Thrones episode without it), the female nude will continue to evolve in tandem with how our views of our own bodies change.