Displaying the Renaissance Nude MSc Chapter 1

The Nineteenth Century Foundations of Public Galleries

This chapter will address the collecting policies of the nineteenth century public gallery regarding erotic images with the hope to shed some insight into the contemporary collecting and display practices of Titian’s Venus Anadyomene.9 It is only as recent as the last decade that sexuality and body image in art have been addressed in galleries. This can be seen in modern and contemporary installations, which challenge traditional modes of display.10 In contrast, the Renaissance female nude has been safeguarded within the confines of art galleries, essentially defining high art. This chapter will answer the following questions in order to begin to understand the reasons behind the validation of erotic images based on their artistic worth. Why are old master paintings accepted without public backlash, but veneration? What were the policies of nineteenth century public galleries regarding sexuality? How did they present sexually charged images from the Renaissance? Is there a parallel between the ways galleries present the Renaissance female nude today and the ways in which nineteenth century galleries presented the subject?

Answering these questions will first require an investigation into how movements to enforce sexuality in nineteenth century Britain may have informed the ways erotic images were discussed in galleries. Sexual regulation may have influenced the creation of the British Museum’s museum secretum and the desexualised interpretation of the Renaissance female nude today. While considering specific case studies, such as Venus Anadyomene (Figure 2) and other sixteenth century representations of the female nude as well as some less overt portrayals of sexuality, this discussion aims to trace the origins of the ways the Renaissance female nude has been discussed in public galleries in Britain.


Contemporary images of the female nude are at times censored in galleries even though they are created for a public audience. Contemporary artist Tom Hunter who recently recreated Titian’s Diana and Actaeon (Figure 6), stated that during the installation of his 2006 exhibition titled Living in Hell and Other Stories at the National Gallery in London, the director said ‘we do not want nudity in the National Gallery,’ Hunter said, ‘you’ve got lots of nudity in the National Gallery,’ to which the director responded, ‘well, those are paintings.’11

In keeping with the comments by the director of the National Gallery, London, it is safe to say sixteenth century representations of the female nude created to elicit physical and sexual responses are not challenged by twenty-first century audiences. The desexualisation of the Renaissance female nude is a direct result of centuries of misinterpretation in the gallery space. Some galleries may de-eroticise the female nude subconsciously through various media such as wall labels, press releases and exhibition designs in order to accommodate outside pressures. Exhibition designs place the Renaissance female nude in majestic and sterile environments, which fetishise and objectify the female body and creates a de-eroticised way of seeing. As we will see later, Titians representations of the Renaissance nude have been displayed this way and are part of the canon of great painters that have been largely unchallenged since the establishment of public art galleries.12

However, during the mid-nineteenth century contemporary reactions questioned the status of the erotic nude as high art. This can be seen in frequently  cited account from a Victorian tourist, who describes his first encounter with Titian’s Venus of Urbino (Figure 3),

You enter, and proceed to that most-visited little gallery that exists in the world–the Tribune–and there, against the wall, without obstructing rag or leaf, you may look upon the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses–Titian’s Venus.’13

Mark Twain’s well-known formal analysis of the Venus of Urbino illustrates a nineteenth century discomfort with sexuality and also highlights the acceptance of high art during the time,

It isn’t that she is naked and stretched out on a bed–no, it is the attitude of one of her arms and hand. If I ventured to describe that attitude, there would be a fine howl–but there the Venus lies, for anybody to gloat over that wants to– and there she has a right to lie, for she is a work of art, and Art has its privileges.14

Only specific works of art by certain artists were worthy enough to be considered art. Manet’s Olympia (Figure 12), painted in 1864 was a complete departure from the salon nudes that existed in abundance and were inspired by Venus of Urbino. Olympia not only challenged western notions of taste, class and gender; it was also formally condemned by French society as an example of depravity and degeneracy.15 Manet’s appropriation of Titian’s Venus of Urbino reflected his ideas about sexuality and class, which will be explored in more detail in chapter two.

Alison Smith notes that by 1885, the nude had become a ‘conspicuous category within Victorian high culture,’ she states, ‘on the one hand, the nude embodied the ideal, the highest point of the pictorial artists practice; on the other, it was viewed as an active incitement to unregulated sexual activity.’16 The interesting concept is that erotic images of the female nude were intended to arouse the viewer as, the Venus of Urbino (Figure 3) is believed to be caressing herself and actively inviting the viewer, (most likely the husband) into a congenial sexual and loving act.17 When the painting was created during the sixteenth century, female ‘self-caress’ was appropriate for gestation, and therefore, the image may have had an instructional message.18 However, nineteenth century society considered masturbation a dangerous, medically proven sexual indulgence and was also a psychologically damaging act.19

Medics responded with heinous medical procedures such as penile cauterization and clitorodectomy carried out on those who needed to permanently remove the source of pleasure.20 Artworks were also put through sexual cleansing by censoring the title of the painting and the erotic nature of the female nude had to be completely avoided in order for it to be acceptable viewing.21 Brown states, ‘desire was permitted if displaced from the particular figure, if the body was transformed into a formalized and generalized sign: the nude.’22 The Victorian’s uneasiness towards sexuality represented the puritanical attitudes promoted by the patriarchal ruling class, who linked controlling sexuality with successfully managing the populace.23 This was further investigated by Michel Foucault in History of Sexuality where he argues that sexuality was acknowledged and instead of trying to hide it, the Victorians tried to control it; and by controlling sexuality, they could control society.’24 Once placed in the walls of a gallery, the erotic connotations were eliminated and the female nude could be openly admired.

Twain’s literary reference is particularly relevant to this study as A Tramp Abroad was published in the same period as idea that art galleries could educate the masses. The utilitarian purpose of galleries emerged in the late nineteenth century, and that advocated art could help in ‘educating and controlling the labouring multitude by offering an example of perfect order and perfect elegance…to the disorderly and rude populace.’25 This mentality was also endorsed by one of Titian’s greatest Victorian supporters such as John Ruskin (1819-1900).26 Thomas Greenwood’s Museums and Art Galleries (1888) similarly promulgated the idea that museums would foster a craving for knowledge, including the working classes, or at least the ‘most intelligent of them.’27 The writings of Greenwood, Ruskin and other influential nineteenth century thinkers exude elitism. However, there is a sense they truly believed the power of art could educate the masses and enlighten their bleak urban lives.

Although these exaltations were meant to promote a broader audience for art works, they simultaneously excluded those who were not able to understand the uplifting qualities of art. It was believed ‘those who responded to works of art with inappropriate emotion, who attended to the signified more than the sign, regardless of its setting were marked as ignorant.’28

There were expectations and rituals for how the museum visitor should respond to artworks, which shunned those who considered erotic nudes titillating or lustful. A more appropriate reaction was an admiration of the skill and technique of the artist, informed by the current intellectual discourse regarding the genre. This is

9 Liddard, 1996. 165.

10 Frost, 2010. 138.

11 Alontaga, 2011. Interview with Tom Hunter. Appendix 5.

12 Alontaga, 2011. Interview with Susanna Avery-Quash. Appendix 1.

13 Twain, 1883. 357. David Rosand, 1997, also cites this passage of Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad in Rona Goffen’s (ed.), Titian’s Venus of Urbino. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press)

14 Twain, 1883. 357.

15 Eisenman, 2002. 287.

16 Smith, 1996. 1-2.

17 Goffen, 1997. 78-9.

18 Goffen, 1997. 78.

19 Marsh, 2011. 2.

20 Marsh, 2011. 2.

21 Smith, 1996. 8.

22 Smith, 1996. 8.

23 Marsh 2011, 1.

24 Smith, 1996. 7. Quoted from Michel Foucault. 1978; 1986. A History of Sexuality. (New York, Pantheon Books).

25 Cook and A. Weddeburn, Vo.l 30 (191280px-Frith_A_Private_View07) p. 53; Vol. 34 (1908), p. 247.

26 Cook and A. Weddeburn, Vo.l 30 (1907) p. 53; Vol. 34 (1908), p. 247.

27 Greenwood, 1888. 20, 26-7. Republished in 1996.

28 McClellan, 2003. 4.

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