12345The Nude in Late 19th Century French Art
Two major artistic movements dominate the second half of the century. A group of painters known as the Impressionists also take up themes from modern life, executing primarily landscape and genre subjects with broken color and loose brushwork that reflect the transitory nature of the images they depict. In response, a group of artists known as the Symbolists who rejected the notion that the purpose of the arts is to represent the world as it appears to one's senses. They proposed instead to create works that would use suggestive images to embody transcendent ideas and would thus offer an experience of truth, beauty, or the idea beyond the material realm.
Nude paintings were much popular during the 19th century notably in France where painters produced some spectacular erotic works showing naked women in lustful postures. Nude figures remained however in demand until the fall of Emperor Napoleon 1st before the Victorian era imposed a kind of embargo on woman nakedness.1 Strict attitudes then prevented painters from say taking the clothes off their models. Only a few painters ignored that sort of embargo which lasted until at least 1860 and it was in France again where pornographic pictures had been circulating clandestinely in the 1830s that the trend of nude paintings resumed, notably with Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Edgar Degas, and some other masters who however adopted an academic approach to treat such subject.2
In this article, two paintings by Degas and Puvis each from Impressionism and Symbolism are compared. Woman at Her Bath by Degas in 1895 and The Bathers by Puvis in 1890 both depict nude but in two different methods. This article aims to help explain why Degas and Puvis occupied important places in the history of 19th century French art, highlighting their ability to bring together the classical culture of his era and the avant-garde movements of the 20th century, through works that are not well-known worldwide.
Edgar Degas (1834-1917), was a French artist famous for his work in painting, sculpture, printmaking and drawing. He is regarded as one of the founders of Impressionism although he rejected the term, and preferred to be called a realist. Nude figures are central to the work of Degas, from his early works in the first half of the 1850s to the final years of his artistic activity on the eve of the First World War. The nude was the genre Degas used to introduce new ideas and develop his style over the course of almost fifty years. Woman at Her Bath is among Degas’s late works, this oil on canvas is measured 71.1* 88.9 cm and purchased by AGO in 1956. It depicts a bended naked woman showering her hair by sitting on the edge of a bathtub. Another woman is holding a kettle and pouring water over the naked woman’s head. Both of them have the left hand on the bathtub supporting their weight and right hand in motion.3
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898), the leading French mural painter of the later 19th century. He was largely independent of the major artistic currents of his time and was much admired by a diverse group of artists and critics, including Georges Seurat and Paul Gauguin. Although The Bathers is not mural painting, it endows the characteristics of monumental works. The Bathers is Puvis’s late oil on canvas works which is not from his renowned mural paintings. This 1890 artwork is measured in 55.4* 35.5 cm which depicts two bathers with upper body naked looking at each other on grassland. The standing woman back to viewer is combing her hair and the other is sitting with left hand supporting on ground and showing her breast.4

Degas’s painting style changed during his life. As his subject matter changed, so, too, did Degas' technique. In this late oil painting, pictures are more like in pastel. The dark palette that bore the influence of Dutch painting gave way to the use of vivid colors and bold brushstrokes. On plates coated with ink that he then removed with a brush, a pointed instrument or even his fingers, he produced works with dark backgrounds reminiscent of the prints by the 17th century Dutch masters who had been rediscovered at that time.5 The changes to his palette, brushwork, and sense of composition all evidence the influence that both the Impressionist movement and modern photography, with its spontaneous images and off-kilter angles, had on his work. The strokes that model the form are scribbled more freely than before; backgrounds are simplified. The repeated representation of these activities, as opposed to the study of the classical nude referring back to Antiquity, then guided his stylistic evolution.
Puvis’s murals stand apart from those large-scale public decorations that imitated the style of market-oriented paintings and so does his oil painting, The Bathers. The artists used large flat areas of color, rhythmic compositions, and suggestive subject matter to appeal to the individual subjectivities and feelings of viewers, and he also simultaneously maintained the aim of public edification.6 Puvis’s pictorial mode injected new life into the tradition of idealism in public decoration. This emphasis on large areas of color and abstract patterning is an important element of Puvis’s modernism. The simplified forms, respect for the flatness of the picture surface, and use of non-naturalistic colour to express the mood of the painting, gave his work a modern, almost abstract look. The pleasurable sensuality of the patterning itself had meaning. It lent the painting a dreamlike atmosphere.7
Puvis’s modernist bodies seem comprised of solid, discrete units assembled together, declaring quite bluntly their modernity and strangeness. For example, the blue background gives no depth to the flat which makes the picture dreamlike. In comparison, Degas’s painting is more like pointillism and the shadow in the bathtub and background gives depth to the picture.
Degas’s work is more realistic and Puvis’s is more monumental. As a realist Degas called himself, his interest seemed to move more towards representing nude women at their daily activities. The repeated representation of these activities, as opposed to the study of the classical nude referring back to Antiquity, then guided his stylistic evolution. A celebrated muralist, Puvis often worked on such a monumental scale. His use of broad expanses of flat color was influenced by Italian fresco painting. The leaves on top left of the Bathers, for instance, are decorated with golden pigment in a way to imitated fresco paintings.
Puvis exaggerates the harshness of the figure and emphasizes the distorting qualities of line. Hands, fingers and arms are enclosed within heavy, dark contouring that hinders the eye from imagining the bodies’ three-dimensionality.8 The standing woman blocks the horizontal line and prevents the viewer’s eye from moving deeper into the pictorial field. As Degas’s career developed, the incisive detailing of his early work gave way to bolder lines and more dramatic textures and flourishes, but the expressive power increased rather than diminished.
In Woman at Her Bath, their faces aren’t exposed, and their backsides act as a kind of shield. In Degas naturalism cancels out voyeurism. His poses combat the forced intimacy of modernity by making women as un-self-conscious as animals.9 They’re pure exterior. For Degas it was an opportunity to paint three-quarter and back views of the figure, draw nudes without showing the face and capture the play of light on the skin through its shimmering reflection in the water. For Puvis, his two women one facing and one back to the viewer give sexual suggestions by their positions. His simplified forms, respect for the flatness of the picture surface, rhythmic line, and use of non-naturalistic color to evoke the mood of the painting appealed to both the Post-Impressionists and the Symbolists.
Oil paint historically has been the ideal medium for depicting the nude. By blending and layering paint. And the nude in 19th century French art is no doubt a significant theme in art history. The two images of nude bring from impressionism and symbolism discussed above are both from late period of artists’ life. Throughout his life, Degas had renewed the approach to the classical theme par excellence, the nude, taking it right up to the avant-garde movements of the 20th century. He fully exploits the expressive possibilities of pastel characteristics on oil paintings in his naturalist rendering of the body. In Puvis’s images, the simplicity of the composition, the small number of colours, the lack of depth, and the neutrality of the subject inspired from antiquity with the incredible motif of the figure shown from the front and back all testify to a completely original poetic vision. This deeply marked contemporaries and following generations down to Matisse and Picasso who drew direct inspiration from.

12345 8.4 of 10 on the basis of 4288 Review.