If we remark on how we enjoy the beauty of landscape paintings or admire the skills of a portraitist, there is often very little comment from our listener. If however we extol the beauty of nude paintings our listeners often look at us askance as if we have revealed an unhealthy interest in a taboo subject. In Kenneth Clarke’s 1972 book The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, he looks at the art of the Greeks to that of Renoir and Moore, and it surveys the ever-changing fashions in what has constituted the ideal nude as a basis of humanist form. The book came out of a series of lectures he gave at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. which was a part of the A. W. Mellon Lectures. In his lectures, and in this book, Clarke traces the development of the nude in art from several viewpoints, and categorizes the various influences that civilization at the time had on its representation. It opens with his observations on the terms “nude” and “naked”.
“…The English language, with its elaborate generosity, distinguishes between the naked and the nude. To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word “nude,” on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled and defenseless body, but of a balanced, prosperous, and confident body: the body re-formed. In fact, the word was forced into our vocabulary by critics of the early eighteenth century to persuade the artless islanders [of the UK] that, in countries where painting and sculpture were practiced and valued as they should be, the naked human body was the central subject of art…”
It was also he who claimed in his 1956 book, The Nude, that there is a difference between nudity and nakedness. He said that a naked human body is exposed, vulnerable, embarrassing. He further stated that, on the other hand, the word ‘nude’, carried, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image the word projected into one’s mind is not of a huddled and defenceless body, but of a balanced, prosperous and confident body.
In this fourth instalment looking at the work of the Danish painter, Christoffer Wilhem Eckersberg I am going to take a look at his works of art which feature nude depictions.
Eckersberg had arrived in Paris in 1810 and it was during his three year stay in the French capital that he studied the art of painting the nude form in life drawing classes. We know about this through a letter he wrote in July 1811 and sent to a professor of art at the Royal Danish Academy, Johan Frederik Clemens. He wrote about his life in Paris:
“…Together with several German painters I am holding a kind of academy here, where we drew alternatively after the very best models of both genders, as is the common here, enabling me to carefully study the figures I use for my paintings…”
We know that Eckersberg attended Jacques-Louis David’s atelier in September 1811 and we also know that David only employed male models for the life classes. It was for that reason that Eckersberg, at his own personal expense, employed his own female model, Emilie.
During this time with David, Eckersberg spent much time practicing life drawing and history painting and worked on a series of paintings depicting episodes from Homer’s Odyssey. In this painting, Ulysses Fleeing the Cave of Polyphemus, we see the one-eyed giant Polyphemus, who had been blinded by Ulysses, moving blindly around the cave checking a sheep, searching for Ulysses and his companions. Ulysses and his men had escaped beneath the bellies of the flock and we observe Ulysses, on the right of the painting, looking furtively behind him at the monster. He is the last of his band of men to exit the cave and he is desperate to join his companions who have made it to safety outside. Outside the cave is beautifully lit with the Mediterranean light. However it is the contrast between extreme darkness of the cave and the well lit exterior which adds to the menace and tension. The painting showcases Eckersberg’s interest in perspective, his acute observation of nature, and his nuanced treatment of light.
In October 1811 he again wrote to Clemens describing his work at David’s atelier:
“…We paint by life and have the choicest and most exquisite models at the studio; one is the very image of Hercules, another of a gladiator, a third quite the likeness of a young Bacchus or Antinous…”
It was not just the availability of top-class models that pleased Eckersberg it was the fact that the life classes took place during the day in favourable light conditions and he was able not to just study the physical form of the models but what he considered just as important, their colouring and the shades of skin resting on top of the muscle, bones and tissues underneath.
One of his early paintings which art historians believe approximates the style of his tutor, David, is one he completed in 1812. It is entitled A Young Bowman Sharpening his Arrow. The painting depicts a strong, beautiful and theatrically posed man à la Neoclassicism. The differentiation between areas of light and shade on the model’s body is exquisite and the colour and tonal differences we see between the reddish tones on the rear of the thigh, the left knee, hands and face are in contrast to the bluish-grey of the rib and shoulder areas and this adds to the beauty of the painting. It is the intrinsic flesh tones that Eckersberg has added which makes this a very special work.
Eckersberg’s painting, Two Shepherds, was completed in 1813 around about the time he was about to leave Paris and head for Rome. The work seems to have started off as a simple figure study which was then converted into a painting of two shepherds back in antiquity. We see the two men sitting on blocks of stone which could at the preliminary stage been wooden crates which were used by artists in a studio and which formed part of the set up whilst trying to position the models in what was considered the best poses. It is also a study of the male body at different stages of life. The shepherd on the left being much older than his companion. In this work Eckersberg is mindful of the strict, albeit generally accepted limits of correctness when it comes to depicting genitalia and has ensured that such is hidden by draperies which fell across the thighs of the two men. Like the previous work, Eckersberg is very conscious of the effects of shade and light on the two male bodies and in this depiction the man on the right is bathed in light on his front whereas it is the back of the older man which has been lit whilst his chest and abdomen are in the shade.
Probably the best known of his male nude paintings as it has been used in the massive posters publicising his current exhibition, is one he completed in 1837, entitled Male Model holding a Staff. Carl Frørup, 18 years. It was in 1837 that Eckersberg set about a five painting series featuring nude depictions of two were of men, two of women and one of an eleven year old girl. The reasons for completing the series was that they would be used by students at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. This factor could be part of why we never look on the depiction as a voyeur as we know the reason for the work is an aid for students who are studying life paintings. Probably for that reason Eckersberg has painted five works which are in no way idealised classical versions of the human body. There is no attempt to tag them with some mythological or historical story. The five works were all completed in a studio. All are overwhelming in size and nature. In each case the model avoids eye contact with the viewer. The work above features Carl Frørup, a relative of the academy porter.
Eckersberg also completed many nude depictions of women. Standing Female Nude against a Green Background was completed by Eckersberg in 1837 and was another of his series of five nude depictions. The use of female models in the life classes in academies was forbidden up until 1822 and it was not until eleven years later, in 1833, that the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts sanctioned the use of female models for their life drawing classes.
This, along with its companion piece, Standing Female Nude against a Red Background, were both completed in 1837 part of the five nude studies. The models used for these paintings were nineteen year old Dorothea Petersen and eighteen year old Juliane Wittenborg. Both these works look as if they were painted during life classes but Eckersberg has given the two women different facial expressions. Whilst one looks introverted and worried. The other looks detached and consumed by her own thoughts. Neither model looks us in the eye. Again as are the other paintings in the series, these were simply paintings that young art students at the Academy could study so as to formulate their own artistic techniques when it came to depicting nudes. All the paintings in the series belonged to Eckersberg during his lifetime and upon his death were bequeathed to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen by his children who wanted to carry out their father’s last request.
Eckersberg completed his small work, Reclining Female Nude, in 1813, whilst in Paris. It is thought that he had worked on this painting whilst taking part in one of the “private academy” sessions he and some of his contemporary German artist friends would hold on a regular basis. We see that he has taken pains to depict the varying tones in the woman’s skin. Look at the variations. The blue veins we see over her ribs, the reddish areas of skin around the neck and the red work-worn hands and the slight tanning of the skin above her breastbone which would have been due to the neckline of her dresses.
Another small nude painting completed around the same time (1813) was Nude Reclining on a Bed. There is sensuousness about this work in comparison to most of his other female nude paintings. What makes the work sensuous? Could it be the rumpled state of the unmade bed, which gives rise to speculation that an intimate situation may just have happened? Maybe it is the closed eyes and flushed cheeks of the woman which makes us believe that she too may be recalling the previous events.
Eckerberg’s Morgentoilette which is sometimes known as Woman in Front of a Mirror which he painted in 1841. It was while he was professor at the Royal Academy in Copenhagen that he conducted classes in life drawing and painting from the nude model, male and female. This painting by Eckersberg, to me, emphasises the argument that a female body partly clothed is far more erotic and sensuous in comparison to complete nudity, such as we see in Egon Schiele’s paintings. The woman has her back to us and we see in the mirror the reflection of her face and her upper chest, just revealing a small amount of cleavage. She stands before us with a towel slung loosely around her waist but letting us view the swell of her hips and the upper curvature of her buttocks. Her body is like polished marble. Our eyes move upwards from the towel and we observe the slimness of her waist and the well defined muscles of her back. Her hair, which is tied back in a bob, is held by her right hand. This upward positioning of her right arm allows us to look upon the sensuous curve of her shoulders and neck. In the mirror we can just catch a glimpse of her face which appears flushed. Maybe she is embarrassed by the pose and the gaze of the artist or maybe it is because she realises that in times to come we will be staring at her beauty.
My final painting for this blog is Female Nude. Florentine, which Eckersberg completed in 1840. In 1833, the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, where Eckersberg was professor and director, introduced female models to its life drawing classes. Prior to this date the Academy had only used male models for reasons of propriety. This decision, to allow female models to be used, renewed Eckersberg interest in life drawing, a genre which he had first practiced while studying with Jacques-Louis David in Paris.
During 1840 Eckersberg produced some of his most important and moving paintings and drawings of the female nude, including the one I am now showcasing. Many of his nude paintings at this time featured the same model, a woman named Florentine who he mentioned in his diary in the September of that year. A year later he produced his best-known painting using the same model, Woman in front of a mirror.
This work was painted between September 5th and 10th 1840 during his life classes at the Academy’s Model School. Unlike some of Eckersberg’s female nude painting of 1837, which I have shown earlier, the model Florentine flaunts her body more openly and the diffuse shading of her body lends to eroticism of this work. There is no eye contact between Florentine and us and by avoiding this, the artist kept a robust degree of judicious deliberation.
In my fifth and final look at the life and works of Christoffer Eckersberg I will be looking at among other works, some of his exquisite seascapes