There has been a lot of interest in recent years in the painter Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), the inspirer of neoclassicism. I am thinking particularly of Thomas Crow’s brilliant Emulation,1 which examines the human tensions and rivalries within David’s all-male studio, and of Michael Fried’s suggestive Absorption and Theatricality,2 which explores the relationship of painter to viewer. Similarly there has been much discussion of the role of the male nude in neoclassical art, one of the subjects discussed in Ewa Lajer-Burcharth’s book. The life class was so central to official academic training in eighteenth-century France that a male nude was simply referred to as an académie. “Typically,” Crow writes, “the student constructed his painting from a sitting or reclining studio pose, the identity of the model being minimally transformed by a few classical props or sometimes only by the name of a classical hero as a title.”
This was the training received by David and his pupils, but it must not be misjudged. Through the codes and conventions, and within the confines, of the single nude study, a painter of genius—and there were a number in David’s studio—could find the way to express most complex things. Such a picture might take rank as a “history painting,” which was regarded as the highest genre; and one could well feel, with Yeats:
All dreams of the soul
End in a beautiful man’s or woman’s body.3
It is tempting to suppose that an académie or painted male nude is akin to sculpture, but a moment’s reflection shows this to be a delusion. For a statue inserts itself into the world in a quite different fashion from a painting. One is expected to walk around it, looking at it from all angles, whereas an easel painting, at least by convention, demands to be seen from a fixed vantage point. A free-standing statue does not have a background; and even a sculpted frieze is not likely to have one in the painterly sense. The intrinsic remoteness of painting from sculpture can hardly be exaggerated; and, as it happens, this point is especially relevant in the present context. For what Norman Bryson has called the “lethal” quality of neoclassicism (he does not mean this derogatively) derives precisely from this remoteness. “By means of the historical disaster that left behind only Antiquity’s sculpture and virtually none of its paintings, Antiquity features as an alien or alienating force within the painting” (i.e., David’s The Oath of the Horatii).4
At all events, one thing is clear. The nude, which is natural to sculpture, is (except in the case of an académie) by no means so easily accommodated in painting. Normally in painting, i.e., a visual image of the external world, there will need to be some rationale or justification for nudity. One very familiar one is mythology, since one expects deities to appear nude, especially when their physical beauty is in question. But beyond that, the matter seems to need some…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.