Heart on Sleeve: The Nude, Mortality and the Gaze in the Long 19th Century

Author: Daniel Bird

Editor: Charlotte Allan

Image Credit: Delacroix, Eugène. Liberty Leading the People. 1830. Oil on canvas, 260 cm × 325 cm. Louvre, Paris.

Content Warning: nudity

Figure 1. William-Aldophe Bouguereau, The Birth of Venus, 1879.

Charles Dickens in 1859 wrote of London and Paris in his A Tale of Two Cities, “Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death;- the last, much the easiest to bestow, O Guillotine!” It is unsurprising then, that at a time in which the human body was in constant peril, it became the key host for the expression of uncertainties and ideologies over its rough course through the long 19th Century. The flesh has an aptitude for taking on an impressive spectrum of meaning, shaped by the subjectivity of the onlooker and by the predilections of the one doing the depicting. Resultantly, we are able to look on the body and see there inscribed like scars over the span of decades and through pivotal social evolution, the signs of an everchanging notion of the self – in all its trappings of gender and mortality – in relation to a larger socius.

The ‘Nude’ as a convention has seen a long history in art circles and has attracted much attention and opinion from the elites of that arena. The Nude is first and foremost the reproduction of the human body in a consumable state, arranged in a fashion that makes it ideal for the artifice of the gaze. In Winckelmannian terms, this necessitates the depiction of the body in an idealised form drawn from a Platonic imitation of the ‘perfect’ consisting of “the elimination of details, in a process of exclusion, in a serene indolence”. The purity, the union of parts in service of the greater whole (of the nude) assisted both in the image’s capacity to act as a mirror to this ideal, as well as reach effectively into the viewer and make them comprehend its nature through an unobstructed glance.

Where looking is concerned, desire follows soon after as an operative function. As T.J Clark would have it, “the burden of the nude was conflict…between propriety and sexual pleasure” and thus “the genre existed to reconcile those opposites”. Since desire could never be entirely excised from the nude body, the “genre provided various figures in which it could be represented”. Such an endeavour went to great lengths to relegate such a desire to somewhere conceptually outside the nakedness of the female subject, ensuring that “her body [remains] separate from her sex” and that desire is a firmly male edifice. In Bouguereau (Fig.1), the female body appears on a converging point as those peripheral elements, those loitering, whispering or staring “fauns, bulls, falling coins, enfolding clouds, tritons, goats and putti which surround her” are suspended in space and fixated upon the principal nude. These characters are deployed “for the male viewer to read and accept as figures of his own feelings…as an animal demand arriving in a half-man or as Eros, that infatuated guide who stood for man’s desire and woman’s desirability”. The panoply of gazes “within the picture space” compounds the viewer’s own vantage of the figure from outside, by granting an optic array of secondary vicarious lookers. Other systems supported the complete mapping of the body’s topography, most notably in the convention of the Three Graces. Here was an instance in which the artist “devise[d] strategies to present the human body through multiple views” to attain a panoramic “totality of information” where three distinct nudes could, with a “symmetry of movement” contribute to the “perception of a [quite Winckelmannian] generic ideal…in which each separate figure is seen to participate”. As a precondition for the nude’s success, “the woman’s body had to be arranged in precise and definite relation to the viewer’s eye” and all the vicissitudes of desire that eye denoted.

A picture containing text, person, outdoor, water sport

Description automatically generated

 Figure 2. Anne louis Girodet, The Sleep of Endymion, 1791.

Such dynamics seem to situate the feminine form as the eternal subject of the looking masculine. Yet, this binary has very much been breached to remarkable effect in moments of ideological juncture. We see in works like The Sleep of Endymion (Fig.2), all the hallmarks of the ‘consumable nude’. The body is carefully angled, the lighting coaxing out the contours of the skin, however in the place of the female nude is an undeniably male subject. The myth prefaces the goddess of the moon, Selene as the voyeur of the sleeping ephebicEndymion, moonlight pouring down from above over the “limp and attenuated body” in its “languorous swoon of sleep”. These soft masculinities contrast “their immediate predecessors – the virile and purposeful manhood of the revolutionary moment, which in turn must be considered as a departure from the cult of sentiment and sensibilite associated with pre-revolutionary culture” ultimately scapegoating a (female) femininity as responsible for such a culture. Most notably we see a bipartite emerge in works like David’s Oath of the Horatti (Fig.4) which marvels at “the men’s rigid stoicism” against the “startling contrast..[of] the attitudes of grief-stricken women”.

In The Ambassadors of Agamemnon in the tent of Achilles (Fig.3) we see the bipartite populated instead by male figures. On the right, the “sinewy…muscular and virile” ambassadors of Agamemnon: Ajax, Odysseus and Phoenix and on the left, Achilles and Patroclus “made of somewhat different stuff; smoother, lissome, graceful, less muscular and whiter-skinned”, meanwhile the female character is near-unseen “expelled to the dark margin of the veiled interior” on the far left where she is unable to impose on the affairs of the male actors. Here was a project which sought to “expel a femininity deemed inimical to the free and autonomous expression of masculine subjectivity” and assimilate the disassociated remnants into “the culture’s most exalted and prestigious representations” of the nude male. This ephebic turn produced a series of paintings showing “the dramatically isolated image of a beautiful annihilated male body” an ideal symbol of martyrdom. In images like Joseph Bara, Endymion, Hyacinth and even Ingres’ permutation of Achilles and Patroclus, the young and passive ephebe “is frozen by the viewer’s foreknowledge of their fate:” early death which preserves their youth. In response to such types Modleski suggests the epehebe’s “manifest emasculation is not a signifier of impotence but a masculine appropriation of weakness and vulnerability…[that is] another ruse of power”. Far from undermining him, it is his death which makes him an icon of revenge, of supposed stewardship over those struck down by counter-revolution, of the necessity for Terror as a legitimate means – and crucially – radical patriotism for the Committee of Public Safety.

A picture containing old, altar, arch

Description automatically generated

Figure 5. Antoine- Jean Gros, Bonaparte Visiting the Plague victims of Jaffa, 1804.

Against the backdrop of an advancing colonial endeavour under Napoleon and in the aftermath of abounding revolutionary bloodshed in France, this image of the body-in-death took on an altogether different shade. As the French public gained new access to the vistas of North Africa, a whimsical imaginary rose to meet the influx of information, leading to the construction of a hybridised worldscape straddling reality and fantasy. The Orientalist vision became a hyper-exotic one of heightened emotionality – prolific ‘death and sex’ – that resonated with themes of suffering and passion back in France. A striking icon of the North African campaign is Gros’ Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa (Fig.5). The piece exudes a mythical air, “the revelation of a new world” under the open-air architecture of the mosque by the sea, with Napoleon Christ-like, reaching boldly to a plague victim as nearby soldiers recoil. There is an explorative atmosphere of adventure and danger, all the while, the spectre of disease hangs over the place as if such a quality is immanent to this foreign stage. Those who remain too long in this land risk being changed into a corpse. 

Such a haunting death pervades Delacroix’s The Massacre at Chios (Fig.7) in the same way. The bearded man by the centre stares unseeingly into middle distance, while on the bottom-right a mother lies heaped against the leg of a gaunt woman, behind her a faceless captive is pulled away by an Ottoman rider. The mounted warrior looks down disdainfully with one hand on his sabre, at the man attempting in vain to stop him.  In the lead up to his painting of The Massacre, Delacroix wrote of his meeting with an M.Voutier, “a fine-looking Greek type” recently back from the field of battle in Greece and who spoke of the Greek soldiers who fought their oppressors, “trampling them underfoot, shouting Zito Eleutheria! (‘Long live Liberty!’). The obvious reference to make here is Delacroix’s later work in which ‘Liberty’ herself makes an appearance in the midst of the brave forward charge of a French militia, Liberty Leading the People (Fig.6), in a scene which almost perfectly matches the description Delacroix gives in his letter. However, in The Massacre, we do not witness a triumph against the odds like we do for Liberty Leading, but instead are invited to immerse ourselves in the ubiquitous hurt of an inactive (but also non-ephebic or idealised) party. We see an indeterminate battle in the background and middle-ground but the focalised cast is that of a crushing Greek defeat and despotic Ottoman victory.

The nakedness of the Greeks has none of the poise of the ephebes like Bara or Endymion, instead they crumple, joints arranged in awkward positions, wearing “haggard expression[s] accentuated by the bright red rings circling their eyes,” to the extent that we are unable to confidently know who in the scene is alive or dead. The figures here are not elegantly nude, rather the utter collapse of their spirit has rendered them hopelessly naked. Their bodies admit the cadaver into their frames. It was generally acknowledged that Delacroix indulged in “an excess of sorrow and gloom” however the public had developed a taste for and perhaps resonated with, such a macabre subject.

Stendhal, a writer in the Journal de Paris et des Departements (1824) observed “the public is so bored…with the traditional academic style…that the visitors all tend stop in front of the spectacle of livid, unfinished corpses” exhibited by Delacroix in the Salon of that year. Again, fascination with the Orient coincides with the spectacle of the cadaver. In The Massacre, this bareness stands in notable contrast to the only lit character in the composition to be entirely clothed, the soldier on horseback, retaining a measure of dignity.

Another of Delacroix’s paintings which appeared around the same moment makes an eerie analogy. The Barque of Dante (Fig.8) exhibited two years earlier in the 1822 salon takes for its subject the poet Dante and his Classical guide Virgil in the Inferno of the Divine Comedy. What do we make of the nude in the context of Dante’s Inferno? In this work, it is difficult not to draw comparison between the two poet-voyagers, wrapped up in cloth above the naked sufferers of the Styx, to the prostrate wounded Greeks of The Massacre wallowing beneath the clothed and mounted horseman. The Orient is a place where cadavers proliferate, suffering is latent, naturalised to the magnitude of having to wade through the tide of bodies. In a later iteration by Bouguereau (Fig.9) the same attributes reappear. Dante and Virgil are again not nude but rather, they are heavily insulated by their layered clothing (Virgil’s mouth even is covered) against the bareness of the skirmishing damned. Here, the body has been invaded by the Orient, its dangers and mystery infecting the nude body while these naked souls clamour in a literal hell.

This is not to say France did not share in that mass grief of the Greek uprising or feature these themes in artworks interested in French subjects, only that the Oriental phantasm was a font from which these dreary energies could be siphoned and studied. In works like Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa (Fig.10) we bear witness to an acute and dramatic anxiety in the throes of a recent memory of French social chaos. The marooned crew of the Medusa are sprawled about what remains of an escape raft against a dark horizon. Their fate, we may recall from the very real story of the wreck, has been doomed by the neglect of an incompetent noble captain who abandons them, himself a living artefact of the ancient regime by which the common throng is made to struggle. The discourse seems clear: the underprivileged are forced to suffer the whims of an upper class who cares not for their survival, a tale of the disgrace of class difference. Yet the tragedy of the image is conversely evoked by the surroundings of the figures in the painting, hopeless against the sheer natural disaster that is the ocean storm in an abysmally dark sea. Such a scene speaks only tangentially to the crime of the aristocratic captain; rather it is the very cosmos, in its raw and uncaring cruelty – not only a political but also a proposed cosmic turmoil – which we take for the principal focus in The Medusa. We see a poignant tableau of emotional fatigue against an abstracted climate of violence and dread, coloured by the definitive pendulum-swing (between monarchy/empire and republic) of the revolutionary century. 


Another archetype of the Orient was the ‘erotic woman’. This angle, built to tantalise the male voyeur, is likely a key reason Manet’s Olympia (Fig.11) prompted such outrage in the salon of 1865. Rather than the buttery tones of the sensual pagan or Orientalist construct, Olympia was equated by critics (rather cruelly) to the inverse side of that fiction – the cadaver.. A critic writing as ‘Ego’ Le Monde Illustre saw a grotesque “livid tint of the cadaver”, meanwhile Victor de Jankovitz by “the putrefying colour, recall[ed] the horror of the morgue”. We could very well attribute this to what Olympia’s invasion of this arena entailed: the encroachment of a class (as a sex worker) the bourgeois hoped would remain hidden, obscured behind the abstract fantasy of their pagan idylls, but who had instead “formerly confined to the edges of society…more and more usurped the centre”. Yet, as for the Orientalist Salome type that would proliferate in the late 19th century, so too did the figure of the prostitute present a threat, and critics were cognisant – if not openly so – of the way these “dangers were [paradoxically] part of the subject’s appeal”. 

Most notoriously, it would seem Olympia’s insubordination is located in her stare which disturbs the paradise concocted by the homosocial clique. Absent is “that dreamy offering of self, that looking which was not quite looking” which addressed the anonymous spectator and invited him into the world of the frame. Conversely, Olympia’s gaze is “unreadable, perhaps deliberately so,” guarded in a manner that bars the male onlooker from complete and unobstructed comprehension over her interiority. She is not puppeteered by a male design into an instrumental shape for a particular end (consumption) but instead is “her composition of herself” and such a thing unnerved those who were accustomed to being the critic of the painted figure, not vice versa. Olympia shocked the spectator out of the mythic tantalisation of an abstract ‘pagan ideal’, and back into his own political moment where his powers were steadily diminishing and where undercurrents of class discontentment reared up into full view.

Discourse around the nude often hinged on the idea of authorship over its fantasised image in whatever shape that might take. Throughout, Neoclassical and Romantic temperaments were always present, floating in a precarious coexistence and feuding endlessly over the topic of profanity and propriety. Such an enduring oscillation between academic and sensual arts, is perhaps what birthed the haptic Realist bent that captivated artists of the late century. What we might detect in this shift is an overwrought exhaustion with things of fantasy, be they of an intellectual purity or transcendent ecstasy. We come to the close of the 19th century after it has been wracked by an onslaught of whiplashing political turns, each taking with it a litany of human life and throwing into doubt time and again the moral and aesthetic standing of representations of the world and self. 

That intense meditation can be seen in the face of Carpeaux’s Ugolino (Fig.12), his sons sharing in the proclivity for death that came all too easily to the ephebic model, all of them minimised by the sheer mass of the patriarch their father, rooted in the centre. Ugolino’s posture, stooped with feet crossed in a gesture of deep insularity, eyes affixed somewhere indiscernible, holds proto-Expressionist notes that are acutely existentially worried – where bodies become a thing of anxiety, awaiting destruction of both the thinker’s body and those surrounding him. The ‘Thinker’ archetype appears everywhere throughout this turbulent period, manifesting as the titular Thinker of Rodin atop the Gates of Hell (Fig.13), as a brooding cloaked man in the shadows of The Plague Victims (Fig.5), an elder on The Medusa (Fig.10) who drowns out the world around him in despondent meditation, in Stuck’s Luzifer (Fig.14) at the tail-end of the century and assuredly Ugolino joins the ranks of these ruminating souls. The logical reply to a century like this one is a pensive, indeed, a reflectively tormented atmosphere of ennui in the wake of so much fundamental uncertainty where nothing is universal and all perhaps, could be false.


Clark, T. J. ‘Olympia’s Choice’. In The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers, 79–98, 111–33, 144–46. Princeton University Press, 1984.

Krauss, R. ‘Narrative Time: The Question of the Gates of Hell’. In Passages in Modern Sculpture, 7–37. Thames and Hudson, London, 1977.

Ockman, C. ‘Profiling Homoeroticism: Achilles Receiving the Ambassadors of Agamemnon’. In Ingres’s Eroticized Bodies : Retracing the Serpentine Line, 11–31. Yale University Press, New Haven, 1995.

Sérulaz, Maurice. ‘Delaxroix and the Orient’. In Delacroix in Morocco, 30–53. Institut du monde arabe, 1994.

Solomon-Godeau, Abigail. ‘Male Trouble: A Crisis in Representation’. Art History 16, no. 2 (1 January 1993): 286–312. 

Stafford, Barbara Maria. ‘Beauty of the Invisible: Winckelmann and the Aesthetics of Imperceptibility.’ Zeitschrift Für Kunstgeschichte, 43, no. 1 (1980): 65-78.

List of Figures

Fig 1. Bouguereau, William-Adolphe. The Birth of Venus. 1879. Oil on canvas, 300 cm × 218 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Fig 2. Girodet, Anne-Louis. The Sleep of Endymion. 1791. Oil on canvas, 1.98 m, 2.61 m. Louvre, Paris.

Fig 3. Ingres, Jean-Auguste-Dominique. The Ambassadors of Agamemnon in the tent of Achilles. 1801. Oil on canvas, 113 × 146.1 cm. Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris.

Fig 4. David, Jacques-Louis. Oath of the Horatii. 1784. Oil on canvas, 329.8 cm × 424.8 cm. Louvre, Paris.

Fig 5. Gros, Antoine-Jean. Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa. 1804. Oil on canvas, 532 cm × 720 cm. Louvre, Paris.

Fig 6. Delacroix, Eugène. Liberty Leading the People. 1830. Oil on canvas, 260 cm × 325 cm. Louvre, Paris.

Fig 7. Delacroix, Eugène. The Massacre at Chios. 1824. Oil on canvas, 419 cm × 354 cm. Louvre, Paris.

Fig 8. Delacroix, Eugène. The Barque of Dante. 1822. Oil on canvas, 189 cm × 246 cm. Louvre, Paris.

Fig 9. Bouguereau, William-Adolphe. Dante and Virgil. 1850. Oil on canvas, 281 cm × 225 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Fig 10. Géricault, Théodore. The Raft of the Medusa. 1818-19. Oil on canvas, 490 cm × 716 cm. Louvre, Paris.

Fig 11. Manet, Édouard. Olympia. 1863. Oil on canvas, 130.5 cm × 190 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Fig 12. Carpeaux, Jean-Baptiste. Ugolino and His Sons. 1865-67. Marble, 197.5 × 149.9 × 110.5 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Fig 13. Rodin, Auguste. ‘The Thinker’ in The Gates of Hell. 1880-1917. Bronze, 19.7×13.1×3.3 ft. Musée Rodin, Paris

Fig 14. Stuck, Franz. Luzifer. 1890. Oil on canvas, 161 cm × 152.5 cm. National Gallery for Foreign Art, Sofia.