Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 7, 2004
Heather Dawkins The Nude in French Art and Culture, 1870–1910 Cambridge University Press, 2000. 232 pp.; 0 color ills.; 60 b/w ills. Cloth $70.00 (0521807557)

During the last three decades, the topic of the female nude and its spectatorship has frequently been discussed. In fact, this issue has played a major role in far-reaching reevaluations by feminist and social art history as well as by studies in other fields. Although scholars have addressed the nude and spectatorship in relation to art of the nineteenth century and to the institutional barriers that limited women art students’ access to studying from nude models, most of these investigations have tended to focus on a particular artist, group of artists, theme, or institutional framework. Building on this body of scholarship, Heather Dawkins’s The Nude in French Art and Culture, 1870–1910 makes an important and original contribution by broadening the field of inquiry: in addition to analyzing art (by male and female artists) and art criticism, her book includes perspectives on the nude by representatives of the state and legal establishment who were concerned with censorship (namely politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers, and judges) along with a range of “others”—artist’s models, a nonconformist woman art collector, and a defiant female author. This carefully researched study also widens the parameters of traditional art-historical studies to include, along with high art, visual culture and cultural discourses.

One of the major strengths of The Nude in French Art and Culture is its focus on women’s agency, eschewing the important but much-travelled route of many earlier critical discussions of the sexualization of the nude and the objectification of “woman” in contrast to the spectator’s “masculine” position. In this book, Dawkins includes an examination of the practices of women artists, collectors, models, and authors who managed to critique, overstep, or deliberately challenge some gender-based limitations associated with the genre of the female nude.

This study follows a productive period in which feminist and social art historians “toppled” the nude “from its lofty pedestal of ideal and timeless beauty,” refuting “any pretence of disinterested aesthetic of pleasure” (1). Dawkins sets out to investigate the topic of the nude and its spectatorship as a “psychosocial process” (1) by locating the issues in a historically specific framework that considers art, print culture, the ideal of democracy, and discourses on femininity during the Third Republic. One of the pleasures of reading this book is its careful archival research and analysis. The study has a refreshing quality because it introduces a wealth of non-canonical materials and brings together some unexpected arenas, illuminating the topic from quite different angles and broadening an understanding of how art in this period functioned in the cultural field.

The book is organized into four chapters that cover diverse ground. In chapter 1, the author examines “censorship as a form of spectatorship more than as an apparatus for repression” (8) and demonstrates how discourses on spectatorship constitute, maintain, or challenge social norms. While the narrative of avant-garde artists’ challenge to the academic genre of the nude by painting the nude in contexts of contemporary life rather than myth or history is well known, Dawkins introduces a fresh perspective by addressing the widening circulation of the nude in commercial photographs and in illustrated journals and books. She also painstakingly examines judicial records of specific examples of government attempts to censor images of the nude in print culture during different phases of the Third Republic. In this context, Dawkins examines works by Edgar Degas, extending the debate on public decency into an analysis of art critics’ reception of Degas’s works portraying nude female bathers that were included in the 1886 Impressionist exhibition.

Chapter 2 admirably accomplishes a difficult and still rarely attempted task of retrieving perspectives of specific working-class women. The author makes maximum use of her impressive find of an account that was written from the point of view of one (or several) of Degas’s models and was published in the Mercure de France. The detailed descriptions suggest that while Degas was observing and sculpting the nude model, she in turn was observing the artist and his environment quite attentively. The model’s account proves to be a unique source, which Dawkins uses sensitively for the greater part of this fascinating chapter. The chapter also includes a discussion of Suzanne Valadon, who began as a model (to Pierre-August Renoir, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jean-Louis Forain, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, and others) in the 1880s but then became an artist herself and depicted the female nude in some of her works. Dawkins’s examination of Valadon’s drawings in light of the artist’s experience as a model complements the author’s analysis of the writings of Degas’s model. My only quibble is that the discussion on Valadon is rather short, and basing one’s judgement on her contributions to the genre of the nude only on her life drawings from the 1890s is too limiting. Some of Valadon’s paintings, which make a more significant contribution to the genre, are not brought into the discussion (e.g., Valadon’s unflattering nude self-portrait painted later in her life). The time frame of the book, ending in 1910, may explain the author’s reasons for the limited discussion, but a fuller consideration of Valadon’s work related to her experience as a model would have strengthened this chapter.

Chapter 3 addresses the approaches to the nude by three women artists—Mary Cassatt, Berthe Morisot, and Marie Bashkirtseff. It also discusses the practices of a major American collector of French Impressionist art, Louisine Havemeyer, who acquired several important paintings of female nudes and was encouraged and guided by Cassatt. The fourth and last chapter considers the unusual case of a woman author whose defiant writing about the nude under a masculine name, Marc de Montifaud, repeatedly and boldly challenged the censor’s views of the limits of public decency and feminine propriety.

This carefully researched and well-written book, which raises important issues, suffers from some minor flaws. While textual sources are examined in great detail—and the book presents some welcome material from visual culture—the analysis of artworks at times occupies a relatively minor place, as exemplified in chapter 2, where the lengthy consideration of the memoirs of Degas’s model overshadows the brief discussion of Valadon. This sort of sacrifice may not be easily avoided in a book that introduces a good amount of non-canonical texts and images. Nonetheless, this volume leaves one wishing for more analyses of additional paintings and drawings on the theme of the nude in the fascinating context Dawkins sets up in this study. There are also certain unexplained omissions. Though the book extends its reach to 1910, Dawkins chooses not to mention early-twentieth-century canonical paintings such as Henri Matisse’s Blue Nude and Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. She also does not address representations of the nude in relation to colonialism in French culture, even though images of the ethnicized, racialized, or Orientalized nude were quite visible in high art, photography, and illustrations during the period under consideration. One can sympathize with the necessity to limit the scope of a study on the nude, especially because so many images in art and visual culture deal with this theme, but the reader would have benefited from the author’s articulation of these choices.

While one can quibble with omissions of this kind, Dawkins has successfully produced a study that makes a significant contribution not only to the topic of the nude and its spectatorship in French art and culture, but also to the challenges increasingly facing scholars who are attempting to incorporate the perspectives of “others” into their studies, as well as art historians whose work aims to incorporate methods from diverse disciplines or interdisciplinary study areas such as cultural history, gender studies, and cultural studies. Dawkins effectively integrates diverse methods, including archival research, a foundation in theory, and a contextual historical approach. This valuable book on the nude in French art and culture, which offers fascinating new material and careful analysis, will be richly rewarding for art historians and scholars in the humanities.

Ruth E. Iskin
Department of the Arts, Ben Gurion University