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1885 The Female Nudity Debate

In the summer of 1885, an unusually high number of paintings of the female nude graced the walls of the Royal Academy’s Annual Exhibition, eliciting approbation and controversy in equal measure.1 These included works by established Academicians and Associate members of the Academy such as its President Frederic Leighton and Albert Moore, as well as contributions from a younger generation of artists such as John Collier, who was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite style. Some of these nude paintings were to shock both the critical press and the public. John Collier’s nude figure of Circe (Fig. 1), for example, who according to Greek mythology was known for her powers of sorcery—including her ability to turn humans into animals – elicited the following response from The Builder:

It is as if one took a turn round the environs of an English country-house and came on a member of the family sitting naked on the damp grass, with a tiger by her side. The situation is improbable and chilly; and there is no look of “Circe” in the side face turned towards us ... why could not he call it “Woman and Tiger”, instead of pretending to represent Circe, that wild conception of the old Greek mind.2

Collier’s Circe, like other nudes exhibited at the Academy in the mid-1880s, moved away from the tradition of representing the female nude in the manner of motionless Greek statues; instead, he was influenced by contemporary French painting. The female nude in Circe is a fleshy and curvaceous figure, who peers coyly towards the viewer. For The Builder’s critic, this rendering of the nude was too realistic. This was presumably what he perceived when he described the “nakedness” of the figure, a term which had recently entered art criticism.3

Explore the 1885 catalogue

Overt reactions to nudity in painting at the Academy had already been increasing over the previous decades, and it was perhaps the unprecedented number of nudes on display in 1885 that prompted a variety of protests against these paintings. Albert Moore’s White Hydrangea, which depicts a full-frontal female nude who diverts her gaze coyly away from the viewer, and which was described by one critic as “so exceedingly realistic in her tripping walk”, was maliciously damaged by a member of the public during the Exhibition, in an act seen as a public protest against the painting’s choice of subject matter.

However, at the time of the Exhibition, it was a letter published in The Times, titled “A Woman’s Plea” and signed by “a British Matron”, which was to spark the biggest controversy around exhibiting pictures of the nude.4 The letter was in fact written by J.C. Horsley (Mr), the erstwhile Treasurer and powerful Academician who had long held hardline views against exhibiting nude paintings: the previous year, Horsley had stopped the Selection Committee’s acceptance of Robert Wiedemann Browning’s large bronze Dryope. In the letter, Horsley objected that: “at an exhibition purporting to be for general edification or entertainment, no picture should find place before which a modest woman may not stand hanging on the arm of father, brother or lover without a burning sense of shame.”5 Horsley’s indignant language came on the back of  a wider social purity campaign in the 1880s that attacked all forms of so-called deviant behaviour—including homosexuality, incest, and prostitution—and ultimately did much to discredit the representation of the nude in the form of high art by making  associations between female modelling on the one hand, and prostitution and immorality on the other. Horsley’s letter referred to this “noble crusade of purity” and called on these campaigners to boycott “our picture galleries … which ought to be sources of innocent and ennobling refinement.”6

Horsley’s letter triggered an onslaught of discussion in the press on the issues at stake, putting the Academy and its Annual Exhibition at the heart of a very live debate. On the one hand, a number of social purity campaigners came out in favour of the “British Matron’s” views, many taking up the purported association between the female model and prostitution. However, although most critics continued to be critical of paintings of the nude, they were even more critical of the social purists. This ridicule of the purists was taken up in Linley Sambourne’s illustration in his cartoon for Punchlater that year, when he showed Horsley dressed as his alter-ego “The Model ‘British Matron’”, pronouncing disapprovingly on the Medici Venus. A number of artists, both those who painted the nude and those who did not, similarly came out in support of the moral probity of the female model.

In his letter, Horsley had emphasised another crucial aspect of the debate that caused consternation: the painting of the nude by female as well as male artists. By 1885, many women painters were attending life classes, painting the female model, and succeeding in getting these pictures hung at exhibitions. At the 1885 Exhibition, an unprecedented number of the female nudes were works by female artists. Henrietta Rae, for example, had two paintings, Ariadne and A Bacchante (Fig. 2), hung in prominent places. The double aspect of female artists painting female models led conservative critics like Horsley to complain of a sort of cultural false consciousness: that these artists were assisting in the “degradation of their sex”.7

The Summer Exhibitions were of course not the only venue where conversations about the contemporary nude were played out. Horsley’s attack also mentions the Grosvenor Gallery, which since its opening in 1877 had actively promoted itself as an alternative to the Academy—and in 1885 its walls too were packed with examples of the female nude. Nevertheless, it was the Academy’s Annual Exhibition (and its wider links to the Academy life classes and training schools), which attracted more controversy, particularly given its potent mix of both conservative and progressive leanings among the membership at the time.

  1. This text is indebted to Alison Smith’s monograph The Victorian Nude: Sexuality, Morality and Art(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996).↩︎

  2. The Builder, 9 May 1885, 646.↩︎

  3. Alison Smith has suggested the meaning of the term naked changed around 1878, see Smith, The Victorian Nude, 223.↩︎

  4. “A Woman’s Plea”, The Times, 20 May 1885, 1.↩︎

  5. “A Woman’s Plea”, The Times, 20 May 1885, 1.↩︎

  6. “A Woman’s Plea”, The Times, 20 May 1885, 1.↩︎

  7. The Times, 8 October 1885, 10.↩︎

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Explore the 1885 catalogue