Language of the Nude
May 2 - July 26, 2009
For centuries, the nude body was the highest expression of human aspiration. Religious figures, gods and goddesses, heroes, and even personifications of abstract ideals found visible form in the undraped human figure. This exhibition of sixty rarely seen drawings from the Crocker Art Museum examines the nude, its place in the artist's process and the ideals—and desires—it expressed in European art. Tracing how artists saw the body, for example the influence of Michelangelo and Raphael in the sixteenth century and French Academy nudes in the eighteenth, it also examines the body's context in Christian art, Classical mythology and literary subjects.
The exhibition begins with Michelangelesque nudes, including a figure after his Last Judgment attributed to the artist's friend Danele da Volterra. Following Michelangelo's lead, Bolognese artists reintroduced the nude in religious subjects, represented here by a Crucifixion by Bartolomeo Passarotti and continuing into the seventeenth century with the Roman artist Giovanni Angelo Canini's Saint Sebastian. Erotic and Classical subjects become especially important in these years, as well as episodes from literature like Giuseppe Cades's Rinaldo and Armida.
Italian influence is felt in the Netherlands, where artists who had studied in the country, like Benvenuto Cellini's pupil Willem van Tetrode, imported a love for the human figure evident in the intertwining nudes of his Design for a Silver Plate. By the mid-seventeenth century, a fascinating dialogue develops as this influence is incorporated into a mature, specifically Northern style by artists like Rubens' pupil Jacob Jordaens. Where these artists were inspired by Classical literature, allegorical Rococo works such as Jacob de Wit's Reasonable Love in the eighteenth century show the later development of the human figure in the Netherlands.
In France, the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, founded in 1648, emphasized life drawing as one of the paths to artistic excellence. From dramatic nudes by the Academy's director Charles Le Brun to the nineteenth-century drawings of Chassériau, the live model posing with the aid of studio props became a separate subject. Such drawings brought a new naturalism to Classical art, from Le Brun's pupil François Verdier's Forge of Vulcan to Jacques-Louis David's Neoclassical Funeral of a Hero.
Like the Netherlands, Germany was influenced by Italian traditions, which is masterfully evident in Dürer's Female Nude with a Herald's Wand, drawn soon after the artist's return from Venice. Individual artists like Hans Rottenhammer and Anton Raphael Mengs also brought Italian style and ideas to Germany. By the nineteenth century, with German academies emphasizing life drawing as well, the synthesis of native and ideal was complete, here epitomized by Fellner's Hagen and the Rhine Maidens, an episode from the national epic poem the Niebelungenlied.
The Language of the Nude: Four Centuries of Drawing the Human Body is a rare opportunity for American audiences. It has been many years since a drawings exhibition examined the nude, and nearly fifteen since a selection of Crocker drawings has been seen outside Sacramento. The Crocker exhibition, by tying together studio practice and artistic culture, will provide new insights into both. Where drawings offer direct evidence of the artist's working process, they also show an intellect at work in interpreting the body and its context.
This exhibition was organized by The Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, CA