Friday, November 19, 2010

The Victorian Nude

Or to be more specific the victorian female nude, because then as now it was the female figure that was exposed to the lens. The female nude was a familiar feature in respectable Victorian society, in the gallery and domestic middle class environment of course. The nude was controversial as it raised questions of public morality and we all know how Victorian society was obsessed with morality, sexuality and society. As the industrial classes rose into respectability it was as the expense of the working class. The cities expanded on an outrageous scale, London was known as the whorehouse of the world in popular imagination as young women exploited their only sellable asset - their bodies. These women were generally considered social outcasts, as of course, what respectable women would exploit her body? Out of the lower classes these women were plucked; maids, shop assistants and women to pose as models for artists, amateur photographers, perhaps their masters. Little wonder that the image of the fallen women was a popular subject for many artists of the day.

I digress, the Victorian women as 'the Other' is a topic I will return to another day in the future. The purpose of this post is my interest in Victorian photography. My interest in Victorian erotic photography was revived when reading Paxman's The Victorians where he mentioned Edward Linley Sambourne and the double standard in many Victorian homes. Sambourne was a illustrator for Punch, in public. In private he had a keen interest in the newly developed medium of photography. Under the guise of posing models for his illustrations, his imagination soon realised the other, less respectable uses to which his camera could be put. His darkroom was in his own private bathroom, so he could develop his more say, risque photographs without his wife discovering his hobby on the side.

Linley Sambourne, self portrait.

Public image was no less more important in Victorian england as it is today, if not more so. If Linley's activities came into public knowledge his wife would have felt the impact of his actions, perhaps moreso than her husband.

Kate Manning, semi-draped, April 16, 1888.

With the invention of the daguerreotype erotic photographs were among the first productions. Nudes were officially sanctioned for artists, but there is no denying the sexually charged atmosphere of some of these photographs, that suggests they were intended for more personal uses than painting alone. As photographic technology improved a new trade for erotic photography evolved and in Britain and France a roaring trade for nude postcards and pictures developed.

Nude by Sambourne.

These pictures were sold to tourists and depict the idealized female form of the time, often draped sensuously with exotic fabrics or engaging in decadent activities, like hashish smoking. To be blunt, these nudes were characterized as interacting with the spoils of Empire, as Britain and France (particularly the former) were the largest and most powerful nations of the period. To me, it makes a definitive statement - the female is equated as an object of Empire, something to be governed over by the patriarchal authority, something to be owned and controlled, just as the inhabitants of the outer eclons of the Empire.

Smoking a pipe (source and date unknown)

It seemed like photography was overtaking art, as before photography pivotal political events were depicted on the artists canvas but this was no longer necessary. While some predicted that the more reliable medium of photography would replace art, the opposite occurred. Groups of artists were influenced by photography. The nude still proved to be popular subject matter. The exoticism and sensuality I speak of in Victorian nude photography is gloriously expressed in the art of Gustave Klimt. Rather than be seen to objectify the female figure these women seem to be reveling in their innate sexuality, these paintings are a celebration of the female form.

Danae, Gustav Klimt (1907-1908)

As I conclude I must stress that I do enjoy the provocativeness of these photographs very much, as a feminist I've gone and considered the audience of these photos too much. Lets be thankful that there is still a market for these and they can be enjoyed in all their sensuousness and frivolity.

These photos also prove that the Victorian period wasn't as strait laced as some people believe and that appearances can be deceiving, I like this naughty, concealed element of the nineteenth century. These photos retain an innocence that still intrigues the modern viewer rather than the explicit content of the modern pornographic centre-fold image.


  1. Great article* Very interesting***

  2. I absolutely love Klimt. I read that in the case of a lot of his clothed paintings that the women were originally painted naked and he then painted the clothes on top of the nude. This was only discovered during restoration of a painting where the layers were discovered! So fascinating.

    The more frivilous photographs remind me of Mata Hari for some reason! :)

  3. Interesting post. I've read about provocative postcards in novels but didn't think that some would be so . . . humorous. I mean, nude on a bicycle? Still if they inspired Klimt even in some little way, hoorah!

    Arianne from A + B in the Sea