decorated initial 'T'he nude in Victorian painting and sculpture presented artist and audience with a set of particularly difficult problems all involving issues of sexuality. The unclothed human body had not troubled ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy, or eighteenth-century France. Victorian England was another matter. Long after John Ruskin began his battle to persuade his contemporaries that the arts play an important role in the life of both societies and the individuals who live within them, a deeply engrained Puritanism permeated British culture. Evangelicalism, which was responsible for abolishing the slave trade and many other good works, dominated British society until well past mid-century, and the Evangelicals within and without the Church of England saw themselves as the spiritual heirs of the Puritans, who considered Roman Catholic and High Church ecclesiastical art a blatant form of pagan idolatry. The nude thus faced a triple hurdle before it could become culturally acceptable: First, a significant number British middle- and upper-class English men and women associated the visual arts with the dangerous forces of Roman Catholicism, ancient paganism, and Renaissance moral and spiritual corruption — with the kind of things that Robert Browning, himself an art lover, portrayed in "My Last Duchess" and "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed's." Second, working with the assumptions of what we may term a weak puritanism, many Victorians considered architecture, painting, and sculpture trivial distractions that required energy and attention better dedicated to what they took to be more serious things, such as one's soul or the betterment of one's society. Third, like medieval believers and seventeenth-century puritans, an unclothed human body, whether male or female, was always naked and never nude — that is, it always embodied embarrassment, temptation, and offensive confrontations with the purely physical. At a time when husbands and wives who together had produced a dozen children reputedly never saw each other's naked body, the nude in art was a difficult sell.

In such a cultural situation, artist and critics had to find some way of separating beauty from sexuality, and they did so by denying — or not mentioning — the presence of erotic elements in art and nature. Ruskin, for example, begins his campaign to convince an Evangelical audience of the spiritual value of art with a bifurcated theory of aesthetics, the first part of which argues in the manner of St. Thomas Aquinas that we unconsciously find beautiful objects containing qualities, such as symmetry, balance and order, that symbolize the nature of God. A few years after Ruskin sets forth his aesthetic theories in the second volume of Modern Painters (1846), he uses elaborate arguments from scripture to argue that lavishing time, energy, attention, and wealth upon Churches actually fulfills Evangelical religion. Ruskin actually makes a place for the beauties of the human body within his aesthetic and critical theories when he proposes his essentially romantic theory of Vital Beauty, which holds that we find beautiful the energy and vitality of all living things because we sympathize — or to use the more modern term, empathize — with them. Ruskin in fact devotes comparatively very little attention to the nude in art, though when setting forth his theory of Vital Beauty he emphasizes both the importance of color as a purifying factor and the appropriateness of the nude in countries like Ancient Greece where it was a factor of daily life. According to Ruskin, few painters since the Michaelangelo, Raphael, and his favorite Venetians — Tintoretto, Titian, and Veronese — have managed to produce that "daring frankness, which seldom missed of human grandeur, even when it failed of holy feeling."

In arguing that these great artists "awaken no ideas of base kind" (Works 4.198), Ruskin, like most writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, he casts out sexuality from the Palace of Art, and he does so for several reasons, of which his puritanic sensibility is probably not the most important. The need to divorce beauty from a utilitarian or functionalist aesthetic is: at this early point in his career, he is trying to defend the beauties of nature and art solely on the grounds that they arise in intrinsic human sensitivities to divine qualities that permeate the our world. If he can do so, he can state, as he does, that (a) the perception of something beautiful is itself a spiritual act and, as a corollary, (b) great art does not have to moralize.

Although Ruskin considers himself a student of Plato and often cites or quotes him, he here does not follow the Platonic idea that beauty and the arts contain crucial elements of the erotic. In their works on sculpture and the nude, Sir Kenneth Clark and Sir Herbert Read, both disciples of Ruskin, nonetheless attack the notion that sexuality plays no role in the arts, an idea, says Clark, to which "some wise men have tried to close their eyes." He then quotes, not Ruskin but a twentieth-century philosopher

"If the nude," says Professor Alexander, "is so treated that it raises in the spectator ideas or desires appropriate to the material subject, it is false art, and bad morals." This high-minded theory is contrary to experience. In the mixture of memories and sensations aroused” by Rubens' Andromeda or Renoir's Bather are many that are "appropriate to the material subject." And since these words of a famous philosopher are often quoted, it is necessary to labor the obvious and say that no nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even though it be only the faintest shadow — and if it does not do so, it is bad art and false morals. The desire to grasp and be united with another human body is so fundamental a part of our nature that our judgment of what is known as "pure form" is inevitably influenced by it; and one of the difficulties of the nude as a subject for art is that these instincts cannot lie hidden, as they do, for example, in our enjoyment of a piece of pottery, thereby gaining the force of sublimation, but are dragged into the foreground, where they risk upsetting the unity of responses from which a work of art derives its independent life. Even so, the amount of erotic content a work of art can hold in solution is very high. [8]

Read relates the erotic element in the arts to our tendencies to

idealize the human body; that is to say, we identify the body image with the prevailing ideal of bodily perfection. "A body image," as Dr. Paul Schilder writes in The Image and Appearance of the Human Body, "is in some ways always the sum of the body images of the community according to the various relations in the community. Relations to the body images of others are determined” by the factor of nearness and farness and” by the factor of emotional nearness and farness" (302). The sexual instincts are thus involved. Not only do we tend to idealize the object we love and desire, but also we can transfer to an ideal representation of the human body those desires that we cannot satisfy in reality. Here is the first stage in the Pygmalion myth — Also, beauty is a social phenomenon, and, as Schilder puts it, "The beautiful object provokes sexual tendencies without satisfying them, but at the same time allows everybody to enjoy it. Beauty thus becomes suspended action, and it is understandable that the classicist ideal does not desire the expression of strong emotion and violent movement." [32]

The Knidian Aphrodite

Read's last sentence explains one way that Victorian painters and sculptors contained the unsettling, culturally subversive, and potentially illegal erotic elements in their work. Another, of course, involved inserting them into textual fields that justified or simply masked such elements. Such labels supposedly made clear that the nude figures confronting the spectator were not the young man or woman who lived within the same city as the spectator — say, London or Manchester — but were Apollo or Venus, Oberon and Titania, or John the Baptist or Mary Magdalene. When a Victorian artist identified his image of a beautiful unclothed young woman as Venus he produced exactly the opposite effect that creator of the enormously influential Knidian Aphrodite had intended and produced, for, as Clark reminds us, in the age of Praxiteles "no one questioned the fact that she was an embodiment of physical desire and that this mysterious, compulsive force was an element in her sanctity. . . . Perhaps no religion ever again incorporated physical passion so calmly, so sweetly, and so naturally that all who saw her felt that the instincts they shared with beasts they also shared with the gods" (83).

The question aries, then, to what extent and in what ways did Victorian artists accommodate or even flaunt the erotic elements of their subjects? A. C. Swinburne notoriously emphasized the central importance in sexuality in works as different as Atalanta in Calydon, "Dolores," "Hymn to Proserpine,"and "Laus Veneris," and both D. G. Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones devoted large portions of their œuvre to sexual desire and its consequences, sometimes happy (as in the Pygmalion series) and sometimes not (as in Merlin and Nimue). Some of the classical school, such as Lawrence Alma-Tadema, seem to go out their way to create works, such as An Apodyterium or Cleopatra, completly lacking any sexual tension or potential to stimulate the viewer, though even he painted an image of lush female sexuality in his delightful Tepidarium — a small so-called cabinet painting to be enjoyed in private (or at least in a private space) as opposed to his more heavily archeological works, which he intended for more public, less private, viewing.


Clark, Kenneth. The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form. Bollingen Series 35.2. New York: Pantheon Books, 1956.

Read, Herbert. The Art of Sculpture. Bollingen Series 35.3. 2nd ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 1961.

Schilder, Paul. The Image and Appearance of the Human Body. New York, 1950.

Last modified 27 February 2007