Monday, October 19, 2015


States of Undress: Bathers and Nudes in Nineteenth-Century French Art

WHEN:  through January 6, 2016
Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers, 71 Hamilton Street (at George Street) on the College Avenue Campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick. The Zimmerli is a short walk from the NJ Transit train station in New Brunswick, midway between New York City and Philadelphia.

Today, images of celebrities au naturel are readily available across the multitude of visual platforms encountered in daily life. But before the late 1800s, the study of nude models was restricted to the most prestigious academic classes or the studios of established artists. States of Undress examines an era when the notion of “indecency” dramatically shifted and a more modernist view of the representation of the human figure emerged. Twenty prints and drawings, as well as a painting, demonstrate how French artists relied on tradition and training while updating the context for the nude figure in their works. No longer were figures trapped in heroic or idealized poses; they were placed in realistic contemporary scenes, as well as in ethereal or invented settings. Works by such artists as Edouard Manet, Theo van Rysselberghe, Adolphe Willette, and others reveal these radical visual changes that also influenced people’s attitudes in accepting the modern nude as an expressive vehicle for conveying physical and emotional states of human experience.

“Nude figures traditionally represented ideal beauty in art,” noted Christine Giviskos, Associate Curator of European Art at the Zimmerli. “And ambitious artists worked diligently to master the human form. During the 19th century, artists still emphasized the human figure, but they no longer felt obligated to depict perfect human forms.”     

Mastery of the human figure continues to be a key tenet of serious artistic training. Renaissance masterpieces established the nude as a pinnacle of artistic achievement, a status that persisted for hundreds of years. When the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture institutionalized its program for drawing instruction in 1648, only the most advanced students were permitted to draw from nude models. The Academy also showed preference for painters who focused on allegorical, mythological, and historical subjects. Though the Academy was dismantled following the 1789 Revolution, and traditional subject matter declined in favor of landscapes and contemporary life, standards for representing the unclothed body remained static in the French artistic establishment well into the 1800s. But by the second half of the century, artists initiated new approaches to the topic.

The exhibition includes Edouard Manet’s 1867 print of Olympia – a reproduction of his earlier monumental painting that shocked audiences and critics at the 1865 Salon exhibition in Paris (now housed at the city’s Musée d’Orsay). The subject presented a sea change in thinking within the history of art: the realistic depiction of a nude woman confronting the viewer’s gaze is no longer unfamiliar in art, or the broader realm of the visual media. Manet initially created this etching for a pamphlet that accompanied an 1867 exhibition of his works, but neither Manet nor the exhibition organizers were satisfied with the translation of the painting into print. Instead, he published it in a small edition.

Several works in the exhibition focus on the subject of women bathing – that is, swimming or enjoying leisure time in natural bodies of water, – which had become standard among ambitious artists. Such images had long been popular in French art; in particular, the goddess Diana and her maidens in pastoral settings. And while some artists continued to make references to well-known mythological subjects, the modern female nude became increasingly unidealized and unromanticized.

Two prints of similar bathing scenes portray different moods, in part because of their varied techniques. The 1894 woodcut Les Trois Baigneuses (Three Bathers) by Swiss artist Félix Edouard Valloton reflects his intense interest in the subject during the last decade of his life. The stark, somewhat proper, figures do not seem to interact. They are fragmented and appear to float above the water's surface – an unusual format that may have resulted as a solution to the challenge of depicting a group of bathers in this vertically oriented composition for an avant-garde literary journal. In contrast, Hermann-Paul’s color lithograph Trois Femmes nues se baignant (Three Nude Bathers) – thought by some to have been created in response to Valloton’s work – is more fluid. The figures are somewhat brash, grabbing at each other. Though Hermann-Paul often depicted men and women in compromising situations for publications with a satirical or social commentary angle, he rarely documented nude figures in such common activities as seen in this print. 

The Zimmerli’s extensive collection of French 19th-century works on paper – notably prints and rare books – allows the museum to explore specialized topics that trace developments in the history of art, many of which are influential in today’s art world. Recent exhibitions have focused on the depiction of war, theater, sports, medicine, and satire, which remain relevant subjects in art and literature, as well as popular culture.

States of Undress: Bathers and Nudes in Nineteenth-Century French Art is organized by Christine Giviskos, Associate Curator of European Art.

The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum houses more than 60,000 works of art, ranging from ancient to contemporary art. The permanent collection features particularly rich holdings in 19th-century French art; Russian art from icons to the avant-garde; Soviet nonconformist art from the Dodge Collection; and American art with notable holdings of prints. In addition, small groups of antiquities, old master paintings, as well as art inspired by Japan and original illustrations for children’s books, provide representative examples of the museum’s research and teaching message at Rutgers. One of the largest and most distinguished university-based art museums in the nation, the Zimmerli is located on the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Established in 1766, Rutgers is America’s eighth oldest institution of higher learning and a premier public research university.


The Zimmerli Art Museum is open Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m., and the first Tuesday of each month (except August), 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. The museum is closed Mondays and major holidays, as well as the month of August.

Z Café featuring the Food Architects is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with a variety of breakfast, lunch, and snack items. The café is closed major holidays, as well as the months of July and August.

For more information, visit the museum’s website or call 848.932.7237.

The Zimmerli’s operations, exhibitions, and programs are funded in part by Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, and income from the Avenir Foundation Endowment and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Endowment, among others. Additional support comes from the New Jersey State Council of the Arts, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts; the Estate of Victoria J. Mastrobuono; and donors, members, and friends of the museum.