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Art, Nudity and ‘Anti-Nudism’

By Mitchell Merling - 12. October 2021
Curator Mitchell Merling examines prudery through American private collecting of four major erotic paintings that ended up as centerpieces of American museums.
Food for Thought is a series in which tastemakers from different fields consider their knowledge in relation to Old Masters, asking how they might offer a fresh perspective in the way one engages with the art of the past. 

Despite recent art that explores and celebrates a variety of sexualities, contemporary conversations about eroticism in traditional European art have been fraught. Two examples will suffice. In July 2021, a major brouhaha ensued after Pornhub, a leading web distributor of adult content, produced videos with live performers enacting explicit versions of European paintings (including porn star and art world presence, Ilona Staller appearing as the central figure in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus). Pornhub’s rationale that “Not all porn is art – but some art is porn” did not resonate with museums such as the Uffizi and the Louvre, which sued to have this living, lively interpretation removed from the internet. More recently, the offended headline for a review of an exhibition of Titian’s reunited cycle of Poesie painted for Phillip II asks “If we can ever look at Titian in the same way again?”

This article hopes to contribute to this timely discussion by briefly summarizing the historical motives for and contemporary responses to the American private collecting of four major erotic masterpieces that eventually ended as centerpieces of American museums.

Header image: Cicciolina as Botticelli’s Venus © Pornhub William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Return of Spring , 1886, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha

The first, another reimagining of a Botticelli model, was William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s Spring (1866, Joslyn Museum, Omaha). The exhibition history of this work shows the lived vicissitudes of erotic art in late 19th-century America. Bouguereau often depicted female nudes, but possibly because of their immaculate finish and academic idealism, they were usually considered “chaste.” A contemporary critic noted: “The French “freedom” which offends so many people here and in England…is never betrayed by Bouguereau’s pictures: they are as pure, as passionless and as cold as an anchorite should desire.”  Spring proved to be the big exception, depicting a full-frontal nude, who, encouraged by a penumbra of fluttering putti caresses her body while shivering in orgasmic swoon. Included in a dealer’s promotional midwestern tour of contemporary European fine art in 1886, while in Omaha it was attacked by Carey Judson Warbinton, smashing it with a chair causing “two rents fully 15 inches each in length.” Despite being characterized as an “erotic imbecile” in the news of the day, he was most probably spurred on by the Comstock [anti-pornography] Act: “I did it to protect the virtue of women,” Mr. Warbinton told The World Herald….” When I saw the picture, I was horrified. I thought I ought to destroy it.” Delighted in the lurid publicity engendered by its vandalism, the dealer continued to tour the painting in the US with torn pieces of the canvas hanging loose, accompanied by the vengeful chair.  After the tour, it was sent to Bouguereau’s studio for repair and returned to its original buyer, George Washington Lininger, who proudly and likely controversially, hung it in his large home picture gallery which was open to the public.  Subsequently purchased by another Omaha businessman, who eventually gave it to the Joslyn Museum, its acquisition was noted by the local newspaper, which considered it both a curiosity and a shining example of art.

Postcard of the Interior of the Liniger Art Gallery, Omaha, Nebraska 1909
Titian’s Rape of Europa at the Isabella Stewert Garnder Museum, 2019

A second example is Isabella Stewart Gardner’s 1886 purchase of Titian’s Rape of Europa. According to most historians, Gardner’s primary motivation for this purchase was to satisfy her ambition to own a major European masterpiece, preferably with an important provenance, as consolation for losing Gainsborough’s Blue Boy to Henry E. Huntington. This is borne out by her advisor, Bernard Berenson’s proffer to Gardner: “…I am dying to have you get the Europa…. No picture in the world has a more resplendent history, and it would be poetic justice that a picture once intended for a Stewart [he means Mary Stuart] should at last rest in the hands of a Stewart.”  But he could not have anticipated Stewart’s enthusiastic (and oft-quoted) response:

“I am breathless about the Europa, even yet! I am back here tonight… after a two days’ orgy. The orgy was drinking myself drunk with Europa and then sitting for hours in my Italian Garden at Brookline, thinking and dreaming about her. Every inch of paint in the picture seems full of joy.”
– Isabella Stewart Gardner

She was delighted when Bostonians seemed to agree, and gleefully reported that she saw “adorers fairly on their old knees—men of course.”

The audacity of Stewart’s embrace of the sensuality of the painting over every other quality became part of its legend. According to a biographer: “I was told in Boston by a lady who said she had the story from her mother, that Mrs. Gardner was fond of lying on the bearskin rug in front of the Titian and imagining herself to be Europa.”

John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Gardner in White, 1922, watercolor on paper. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

Yet Gardner’s penchant for shocking (very evident when she caused a panic by wearing headgear proclaiming “Oh, you Red Sox!” at a 1912 Boston Symphony Orchestra concert) was perhaps an enactment of a feminist trend (if not Free Love itself) embodied by a third, great American collector, Louisine Havemeyer, whose collection of nudes by Gustave Courbet was formed in the 1890s with the deep support of her husband, Henry O. Havemeyer.

Louisine Waldron Elder Havemeyer and Henry Osborne Havemeyer in Paris, gelatin silver print. Collection of Shelburne Museum Archives PS3.1-12

Havemeyer’s memoirs of her years of collecting – Sixteen to Sixty – offer vivid descriptions of art and artists delivered with an enthusiasm and verve that can inspire even today. Havemeyer’s judgments are swift, sure, and often withering, as her frank assessment of a sale at Galerie Georges Petit: “it was the most dreadful lot of trash I ever saw; The paint would have served a better purpose if it had been applied to the side of a house.”

It was Courbet, above everyone save Edgar Degas, that she dedicated the greatest part of her enthusiasm for both the artist and his art. She admired him especially for the “French freedom” so absent in Bouguereau – literally his own political actions in the cause of the Commune.

Courbet was great because “[He was] one of those painters…guided by an unerring vision. They saw the truth and reality of things…[who]made things real and living because they saw them real and living… He possessed “elemental force, [and] savage veracity of truth;” calling art his “mistress,” and “sacrificing the warm blood of his youth, and all the force of his manhood upon the altar of his muse”

This juicy attitude to politics applies to his art as well. Unlike other lesser, overly meticulous artists: “His nude lies upon the bed and leaves her clothes just where the fall as she takes them off, . . . the hair falls as it likes, and the brilliant parakeet . . . pants and talks at its own sweet will.”  Always on the side of the artist’s vision: “Do you wonder that the jury [of the 1866 Salon gasped . . .  at Woman with a Parrot (Metropolitan Museum). “Oh no! Liberty and truth for him, the treasures he prized above his life!” she brags: “It is mine; how proud I am of it!” Most provocatively, admiringly (free love again): “The French girl of Paris was his model, and is it our affair if he mixed a little romance with his colors?”

Woman with a Parrot, 1866, by Gustave Courbet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © Alfonso Vicente /Alamy
Louisine Havemeyer with the Liberty Torch in 1919 © Wikicommons

Her political and aesthetic motives were mixed as “I begged Mr. Havemeyer to buy [another nude by Courbet] not to hang it in our gallery lest the anti-nudists should declare a revolution and revise our Constitution, but just to keep it in America, just that such a work should not be lost to future generations…”’

Perhaps as a strategy to encourage her understanding husband she promised, despite her vow to him not to buy any more nudes: “But I do want it . . . I want it very much! It is one of the loveliest pictures I have ever seen, and if I had it I would keep it right there in my closet and not hang it in the gallery at all, but just go there and look at it all alone by myself.” Her asserting her right to aesthetically enjoy an explicit nude (if not an “orgy”), must absolutely be connected to her feminism. Though she is acknowledged as a leader of the Suffragist movement after the death of her husband, especially through the 1912 benefit exhibition of loans from her collection, she herself credits her upbringing in a proto-Suffragist house with her lifelong sympathy for the cause, if not activism. This advocacy of “nudism” as part of art no was evident also in her attempt to buy Manet’s Olympia.

It is interesting to note that in 1930, shortly after the donation of the Havemeyer Collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the art critic and professor of art at Princeton Frank Jewett Mather, Jr. (1868-1953) remarked, “There was hope in a nude of Cabanel or Lefèvre; in real life one could buy the like. There was no such stimulation in a nude of Courbet, Manet or Degas.  In real life one wouldn’t want to buy her.”

Titian, Venus with a Mirror, 1555, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

The 1931 purchase by Andrew Mellon of Titian’s Venus with a Mirror from the Bolshevik sale of important paintings from the Hermitage concludes this brief survey. The Andrew Mellon collection, the spectacular cornerstone of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, was described by G.M. Richter as “since the time of the Medici and the Venetian Collectors of the beginning of the sixteenth century no collection has been formed of a similar exclusively high standard of quality.” But unlike those earlier, princely collections, the Titian Venus with a Mirror is the only female nude bought by Mellon, who transferred it immediately to The A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, from which it was gifted to the National Gallery of Art in 1937.

Andrew W. and his son Paul Mellon, 1930 © Alamy

That Mellon had an eye to posterity is evident in his advice to his son, Paul while in London “I hope you are having some time to spend at The National Gallery [London} as it will be useful to you to have some knowledge of the important pictures in the gallery in view of the contact you will have with works of a similar character in the future.”

When Paul Mellon became Chairman of the National Gallery of Art, Washington he founded an annual lecture series dedicated to his father’s memory.  The second series in 1951 was devoted to The Nude. The lecturer, the former director of the National Gallery, London Kenneth Clark, drained the subject of its traditional interest by famously distinguishing between the “nude” – a category of the “ideal,” inciting the mind to “higher thoughts,” and the merely “naked.” However, this did not deter a contemporary reviewer from mixing loftiness (“the author believes that success of any magnitude will only attend to the efforts of artists who can still tie the nude body firmly to those deep feelings and desires which have given it artistic strength and fascination throughout its history”) with concupiscence, (complaining that the plates “in some cases are  too dark to illuminate the points they illustrate” ).

Book cover of Kenneth Clark’s A.W. Mellon lecture series, The Nude

Concluding this summary, two comments might seem to encompass the range of possible reactions to European nude subjects. First, Titian’s contemporary, writer Giovanni della Casa’s, enthusiastically described the Danae made for Alessandro Farnese, as so shocking it would “make the nude that Your Reverence saw in the dwelling of the duke of Urbino in Pesaro look like a nun by comparison.”  Second, Mark Twain condemned Titian’s Venus of Urbino, that same chaste” nude compared to a “nun” by della Casa, as “the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses.”

Certainly, male sexual desire and the weaponized male gaze were present in the making and collecting of traditional European nudes. However, alternative approaches, evident in the matronage of Isabella Stewart Gardner and Louisine Havemeyer, need to be taken account when discussing American historical collecting.❖

Photo: Jay Paul © Virginia Museum of Fine Art
Mitchell Merling is an art historian and independent curator specialising in European paintings. Most recently he was the Paul Mellon Curator and Head of the Department of European Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

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