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Published on October 1st, 2016 | by Magda Michalska

Naked Truth About Academic Art

Academicism was a dominant style in European sculpture and painting in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was called so because it was dictated by the French Academy of Art, Académie des Beaux-Arts, which was probably the most influential art school back then. If somebody wanted to make a career, they needed to follow a few simple rules: excellent disegno (drawing), realistic colours and … lots of naked bodies on canvas!

Naked body for practice

Louis Lagrenée, Seated Male Nude, n.d., The Met

Louis Lagrenée, Seated Male Nude, n.d., The Met

It was a joke, but there was a grain of truth in it. Young students of the Academy had to study anatomy of classical sculptures (mostly naked) and live models (yes, naked) in order to master their drawing skills. And since Neoclassicism was in high fashion in the Academy and history paintings were at the top of the hierarchy of genres, naked bodies were virtually everywhere.

Naked body of history

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Dante and Virgil in Hell, 1850

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Dante and Virgil in Hell, 1850, Musée d’Orsay

History paintings focused not only on historical events but also on most famous narrative stories like mythology or Dante’s Inferno. They rendered bodies in classical poses like contrapposto and advocated classical, harmonious beauty. Moreover, most bodies were male. But everything changed when Romanticism and Orientalism appeared on the horizon…

Naked Romantic Body

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Pygmalion and Galatea, ca. 1890, The Met

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Pygmalion and Galatea, ca. 1890, The Met

Gérôme was one of the most famous representatives of Academicism, with a very diverse oeuvre ranging from portraits to historical painting to Oriental scenes. His attention to detail and photographic ‘realism’ of the depicted scenes, which often were completely imagined and painted in a studio, made his works exquisite and very sought after. He was a master of covert eroticism: he loved to paint naked women and in order to do it with no social reprimand, he would place them into mythological or Oriental context. And this way he illustrated and/or inspired fantasies of many nineteenth century gentlemen.

(Every time I look at this painting, I am astonished how cheeky Gérôme must have been to place in the centre of the composition Galatea’s bum cheeks. I just can’t get over it.)

Naked Symbolic Body

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, The Wave, 1896, Private collection

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, The Wave, 1896, Private collection

Although Orientalism and Romanticism treated nudity with more free rein than Neoclassicism, they still had some constraints to protect the morals of the viewers (ekhm…). For example, nudes always had their genitals covered. Pubic hair? No way, it was too scandalous, too dirty, too real. In the end, all these naked women were not real women, but only symbolic/ exotic figures which did not have much in common with corset-bounded housewives and maids that gentlemen came across in real life.

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Naked Truth About Academic Art
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If somebody wanted to make a career, they needed to follow a few simple rules: excellent disegno (drawing), realistic colours and ... lots of naked bodies on canvas!
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About the Author

Magda, an art historian-to-be, she writes about art because she cannot make it herself. She loves committed and political artists like Ai Wei Wei or the Futurists; like Joseph Beuys she believes that art can change us and we can change the world.



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