The Naked Truth: Paintings of Unclothed Women by George Bellows and his British Contemporaries
Deborah van den Herik
‘The body is not one of those subjects which can be made into art by direct transcription – like a tiger or a snowy landscape… We do not wish to imitate: we wish to perfect.’1
The nude is a category in fine art, usually understood as the representation of an idealised form of the unclothed human body that is not bound to a certain time or place. By the start of the 20th century, continental Europe had had a long tradition of depicting such forms; for instance, one could think of the statues of ancient Greece or the French ‘odalisque’ paintings of the 19th century. However, this tradition was not so embedded in the art practice of either Britain or the United States of America. Both countries had retained some mental as well as physical separation from the artistic culture of the continent.2
Many late-19th-century American and British artists expressed their dissatisfaction with the ruling convention of the classical nude. Thomas Eakins referred to the idealised female body, the nude, as a mutilation which he was not willing to perform.3 In The Art Spirit, 1923, Robert Henri expressed his contempt for the censorious painter, who ‘guided his life against desire and against nature’.4 John Sloan wrote in his diary that most artists who painted a nude woman created ‘a picture that could only inspire lust in a perverted mind, so little is there of humanity in it’.5 These well-known American artists and teachers were a substantial influence on George Bellows. As a young, eager and fearless painter, he was one of the first American artists to create a realistic yet monumental painting of a female nude. In contrast to his teachers, Bellows was not a man of many words, but he did state that: ‘Convention is a very shallow thing. I am perfectly willing to override it, if by doing so I am driving at the possibility of a hidden truth.’6 This truth was soon to be recognised by the American art historian and critic Royal Cortissoz (1869 – 1948) who wrote: ‘I never saw anything of [Bellows’s] hand that hadn’t some forceful truth in it. That is what lifts the “Early Nude” out of the ruck of academic student’s work.’7
Across the Atlantic, the Anglo-Irish painter William Orpen remarked in a letter: ‘Can a nude ever go well? It seems to me the last word is impossibility … I spent the afternoon in the Louvre looking at nudes and there are none in the least like a woman.’8 Camden Town painter Walter Sickert strongly and publically vocalised the thoughts of many British artists in that time. In 1910 he published the article ‘The naked and the Nude’, in which he rages against the academic approach to the unclothed female body.9 About the ‘Nude’, he concludes: ‘To the human form it bears just enough resemblance to make it impious as well as ridiculous.’10
All these statements seem to express a longing for a more naturalistic depiction of the unclothed female body. This article analyses how George Bellows and his British contemporaries approached the concept of the female nude. Interestingly, they reveal different strategies in their moves away from the classical norm.
George Bellows’s Early Nudes: Nude, Miss Bentham, 1906 and Nude Girl, Miss Leslie Hall, 1909
Nude, Miss Bentham (fig 1) can be seen as the result of an important event in Bellows’s early artistic career. In September 1906, he acquired his own studio in New York.11 This private space gave him confidence as a painter. It is important to realise that Bellows personally selected the subject for his first independent figure study, and his choice of model clearly contributed to the remarkable appearance of the resulting painting.
The first aspect that strikes the viewer is the firm build of this young woman. The body type is unconventional for a nude model. Her strong, muscular appearance could suggest that she undertook hard, physical work for a living, and so belonged to New York’s rapidly growing working class. Bellows and other Ashcan School artists followed their teacher Robert Henri’s belief that there was ‘more likely to be character among the poor and underprivileged’.12 Henri encouraged his students to document the life and environment around them without idealising it.13
By selecting this specific woman to paint, Bellows may also be demonstrating his awareness of the changing image of femininity.14 A few years later, his wife Emma wrote to him: ‘I have just been reading in Life that a London dispatch says “women are gradually losing their beauty because of their athletic amusements and their masculine habit of thinking.” What do you know about that? Further insult is added by saying we are no longer soft, lovely, dependable creatures but hard as nails, angular and argumentative.’15 This description might make us think of Miss Bentham’s body.16
Fellow Ashcan School artist John Sloan expressed his preference for models who were ‘sturdy, muscular with broad chest and hips, almost masculine… yet with a strong femininity’.17 As far we know, Bellows did not make such statements about his own early nudes. However, his decision to record the names of these early nude models in his record book deliberately asserts the sense of his depicting ‘real life’.18 In this way, Bellows also ensures that his paintings of these women were not only nudes, but were also individualised portraits. This idea could be further confirmed by his detailed treatment of the models’ faces.19 With Miss Bentham, we can clearly detect specific characteristics, such as her dark eyes, pointed nose and plump lips. Chances are you would recognise her on the street. The same holds true for Miss Leslie Hall (fig 2).
Besides delineating facial features with specificity, Bellows seems to try to catch the character of the women, just as he did with his other portraits. With Miss Bentham, we cannot help but wonder what is on her mind as she is being painted. Miss Hall has a more provocative attitude, boldly staring at her beholder and seemingly comfortable in her nakedness.
Early London Nudes: Steer and Orpen
Painted in London around 1900, Seated Nude: The Black Hat (fig 3) was an early attempt by Wilson Steer to move away from the classical nude. Although this work is now Steer’s most well-known nude, his friends found it indecent and he never exhibited it publicly.20 The painting shows a woman sitting on her discarded clothing and gleefully trying on a hat. The pile of clothing suggests the act of undressing and the hat emphasises her nakedness, much like the shoes of Miss Leslie Hall. In both cases the inclusion of some clothing connects the nudes to reality.21
Steer drew attention to the importance of the hat by including it in the title he gave to the work. Aside from adding an awkward sense of voyeurism, he may have used the hat because of its sculptural shape.22 Appreciating the female nude in this purely visual way could be seen as a very realistic approach. Formal integrity was in fact a reason for the preference for a female nude model over a male nude model from the 19th century.23 Another reason was the potential of sexual attraction between a male painter and his female subject, which supposedly resulted in a more powerful painting. While Steer never, so far as is known, became sexually involved with his models, this supposition was definitely true for another London-based painter, William Orpen. His muse was Emily (or Amilia) Scobel, a professional model at the Slade School of Fine Art.24 In letters, Orpen clearly hinted (with the help of a drawing) that he was sleeping with her.25 Emily was Orpen’s model for several important nude paintings, including The English Nude painted in 1900 (fig 4).
The English Nude shows an unclothed woman sitting on the crumpled sheets of a large, four-poster bed.26 The model’s pose, with open legs, seems to suggest a sexual invitation. Her steady gaze is focussed on the beholder, making it somewhat uncomfortable to look at her bare body. Biographer Bruce Arnold says of Orpen: ‘Even his nudes are portraits, every one of them intensely individual, filled with the life and personality of the model.’27 This description could be applicable to Bellows’s early nudes as well.
Orpen never exhibited or sold The English Nude, perhaps because he felt it was too candid in its sensuality. His fondness for Emily may also have been a reason why he wanted to keep this painting for himself. For both Orpen and Steer, it seems that painting the nude was one thing, but exhibiting it in public was another. Bellows exhibited his early nudes just once in his lifetime.28 However, Nude, Miss Bentham hung prominently in his studio and was kept by his wife Emma after his early death.
In contrast to Bellows, who named his models in the titles, Orpen’s title, The English Nude, seems to depersonalize the painting. Nevertheless, the title is an interesting reference, because the particular expression ‘the English Nude’ was used in debates on the representation of the human figure in art.29 These debates began in the 1850s, when British artists and critics became conscious of ‘the absence and failure’ of the British nude.30 The main issue was whether to adopt a ‘continental’, idealising approach or to stay with local traditions based on empirical observation. In his painting of Emily Scobel, Orpen clearly identifies with the latter option.
One of the most important differences between the early nudes by Bellows and those by his British contemporaries is the setting. Like Manet and Old Masters such as Rembrandt and Hals, whose works he saw in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bellows kept the background to his early nudes (and other early portraits) dark and mostly unidentifiable.31 His teacher, Robert Henri, said of the background, ‘Remember your model is not against the space but in it. What is real to us and what we enjoy is the space, not the walls of a room.’32 Bellows placed his models in ‘a void without subject matter or even the suggested dividing line between floor and wall. In these works the background is not distracting, its ever-presence is sensed unconsciously.’33 In contrast, the British painters used familiar and identifiable environments. They especially preferred a bedroom setting, which the artist could easily access because he had, to use Sickert’s words, ‘the divine privilege of omnipresence’.34 With this expression, Sickert expressed his belief that, in the name of art and through his imagination, the artist could be anywhere he wanted to be. Sickert specifically argued against placing the model in the studio, because he believed the surroundings should mean something. The bedroom is the place most suggestive of vulnerability and intimacy for the naked body, and therefore very ‘real’. Sickert staged most of his nudes in Camden Town lodging rooms, which he rented as studios. The bedroom settings justified the model’s nudity and simultaneously located the concept of nudity firmly in the modern world. These particular spaces – cheap and grimy – also indicated a very specific class context, namely that of the poor urban working class.
Sickert’s depictions of rather plump women lying on narrow iron bedsteads are confrontational due to the blunt, material contrast of flesh and iron. Art historian Barnaby Wright has described the fall of light in Sickert’s paintings as ‘defining the large bulk of the woman’s thigh and her sagging breast’.35 He did not choose his models based on the beauty of their bodies.36 In contrast to Bellows and Orpen, Sickert seems to have favoured anonymous-looking models and deliberately, and somewhat aggressively, smears out their facial features or leaves them broken up in dark shadow, as in his nude of around 1906, La Hollandaise (fig 5).
Another distinctive element of Sickert’s nudes is the woman’s seeming unawareness of a beholder. Both Orpen’s model, Emily Scobel, and Bellows’s model, Leslie Hall, directly answer the viewer’s gaze. Miss Bentham’s eyes do not meet ours, but her uncomfortable pose and the fact that she is covering her breasts suggest that she is aware that her body is being observed. Steer’s model is in a studio among her discarded clothes, so she has been preparing herself for her task. Sickert’s paintings are more explicitly voyeuristic. This is evident in the 1909 painting L’affaire de Camden Town 37, in which we view the naked woman on her back on the bed. We also see a figure of a dressed man looking down on her. Here again the title is used to connect the somewhat puzzling images to reality. L’affaire de Camden Town refers to an actual event in September 1907, namely the murder of the prostitute Emily Dimmock.38
It is interesting to recognize the similarities as well as the differences between the British and American approaches to the female nude. Both Bellows and Orpen turned their nudes into genuine portraits, whereas Steer and Sickert favoured anonymity or at least ambiguity. Revealing their debt to Impressionism, Steer and Sickert both focussed on composition and atmosphere, emphasising the roundness and flesh of the female body. Where the British artists used the setting to imply reality, Bellows trusted that the distinctive features of Miss Bentham’s face and body were compelling enough on their own to signal the ‘real’. Orpen relied on an intimate connection with his sitter, whereas Sickert used the tension of an actual event to make his paintings resonant with reality.
In all cases, the importance of the given titles should not be underestimated. They guide our thoughts on these paintings. Bellows’s titles emphasise that the women he painted were actual living beings, letting someone stare at their bodies for hours. And, the one thing that all these painters have in common is that they aimed to reveal the truth, whether it was a documentary truth, a formal truth, a sexual truth or even a horrifying truth. However, it seems that Bellows, Orpen, Steer and Sickert were also somewhat hesitant to display these truths to the public.
Banner image: Philip Wilson Steer, Seated Nude: The Black Hat (detail), about 1900. Oil on canvas. Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1941. © Tate, London 2016