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Miss Bentham’s Body in Art and Law

Dr Amy Werbel Associate Professor, History of Art Department, State University of New York – Fashion Institute of Technology

1906 was a propitious year to begin painting nudes in America. In August that year, the nation’s first federally-appointed censor, Anthony Comstock, raided the Art Students League in New York, and seized copies of a student magazine featuring life drawings with full frontal nudity. George Bellows’s choice to paint Nude, Miss Bentham in 1906 should be understood as a defiant affirmation of American free speech rights in the face of over-reaching obscenity prosecutions. The painted body of Miss Bentham is a statement not only of Bellows’s right to depict her, but also of her right to exhibit her body, and to work at at time when ‘New Women’ were battling for educational and professional opportunities, and the right to vote.