Author and art historian Eva Siroka dives into the nature of Nudes in Art: Fashion or Passion for Vanichi’s Op-Ed section.

Boucher. Spranger. Wtewael. Names long forgotten and recently resurrected on the art scene. But why? As I traveled back to Princeton from two exquisite exhibitions at the National Gallery in Washington, I wondered what it takes for a person, a product, or an event suddenly to spring back into the limelight.

Chacun a son goût. As the French would say, there is no arguing about taste.  The name of Francois Boucher (1703-70), Madame de Pompadour’s favorite Rococco-era painter and portraitist, recalls plump, sugary images of aristocratic women with powdered faces and gowns so splendid and elaborate that they were probably never washed and replaced with new ones, as the court fashion dictated and nobleman’s purse supported. And then there were his pastoral scenes with overtly erotic couples and nubile maidens who never heard of dieting or exercise. A scene from Valmont, a 1989 French-American movie based on a book from Boucher’s era, recalls the artist’s celebrated painting of deliciously nude Marie-Louis on a bed, as well as a related superbly finished red chalk study. Her plump derrière inspired the poster of the film, while some fourteen years later, the artist’s drawings were celebrated at the Frick in New York on the three-hundredth anniversary of his birth in Paris. Was it more than the anniversary? It seems that even before Fifty Shades of Grey captured, if not overwhelmed, the current entertainment scene, the interest in sexual innuendos in the arts and culture has heightened in recent decades.

Before the 2014-15 exhibition, Splendor and Eroticism at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the name Bartholomaus Spranger (1546-1611), a Boucher’s precursor known mainly for his erotic art, figured only in graduate courses. And that only in recent decades! The Flemish-born artist was a master in capturing nude figures coupled in most alluring poses at a time when male artists were forbidden to draw from female models. Known today as the founder of the Rudolfine Maniera style in Prague, and celebrated in his time as one of the foremost artists of Emperor Rudolf II Habsburg (1552-1612), he was ennobled for his achievements. Yet, soon after his death, his name fell into obscurity during the dark decades when the Catholic and Protestant forces battled each other in the name of God.

To commemorate the four-hundredth anniversary of Domenico Theotocopoulos’ birth (1541-1614), the Metropolitan Museum ran El Greco in New York, a mini show of his paintings,  concurrently with Spranger’s. Stylistically, the two artists are light years apart. Unlike Spranger, the Cretan-born artist regained popularity in the nineteenth century. His religious compositions, crowded with disturbingly attenuated figures, have little in common with Spranger’s. The two artists must have met in Rome, in the Palazzo Farnese, while both were championed by Don Giulio Clovio, a miniaturist to Alessandro Farnese, the most powerful cardinal in Rome who never made it to the throne of St. Peter’s, like his grandfather. In Prague, Spranger turned to life-size compositions filled with frolicking nude gods, while El Greco’s oversized, carefully-clad saints, with their feverish eyes turned to God for salvation, appeared in Spanish cathedrals and monasteries. Catering to the singular taste of their patrons, Spranger to the ruler of the Habsburg Empire and El Greco to Catholic Church in Spain, each reached the pinnacle of success during their lifetime, to be forgotten soon thereafter. El Greco had no followers, but Spranger’s art became widely known through engravings by his fellow artist Hedrick Goltzius (1558-1617).

nudes in art: fashion passion

Joachim Wtewael (1566-1638), the subject of the current singular exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington, Pleasure and Piety (June 28-October 24, 2015), is likely Spranger’s most devoted follower, having never abandoned his mannerist roots like some of their younger contemporaries. A far more accomplished draftsman and painter, Wtewael produced some miniature paintings on copper that would have fit in the palm of a patron, while others would have covered a large wall of a palazzo. Spranger’s Wedding of Cupid and Psyche, engraved by Goltzius, a huge composition with more than one hundred nude gods perched on sausage-like clouds was one of the subjects I identified during my generals at Princeton. In his adaptation, Wtewael’s Wedding of Peleus and Thetis compresses the wedding party onto a significantly smaller format, without reducing the number of figures. Undeniably, it is exceptional among the artist’s large oeuvre. In an age when eyeglasses existed, but were of minimal function, I cannot imagine how tiny the brushes must have been to in-paint the facial features in heads, some of which would barely fit onto the surface of a dime. A superb portraitist as well as author of a few religious compositions, Wtewael, like Spranger, devoted much effort to erotic compositions, some so overtly sexual that these miniscule precious copper tablets were hidden for centuries in leather bags or behind more respectable works of art, and easily removed for the patron’s private devotion. Not surprisingly, Rudof II Habsburg, Spranger’s lifetime patron, owned one of them, hidden carefully in his Chambers of Curiosities and shown only to the most select visitors. With that in mind, my illustrated historical novel My Life with Berti Spranger, brings back a torrent of wild memories of the dying artist who spent seventeen years in the castle studio close to his master’s quarters, catering to the taste of a patron who would not be contradicted. Captured in a memoir discovered by Pieter Van de Graeff, the wealthy Dutch art dealer’s own story makes one realize that there is no argument against taste. Rudolf, Berti, and Pieter: they all loved women.

Abutting closely the Wtewael exhibition rooms, the art of Gustave Caillebotte provided an unexpected transition, not only by moving forward by some three hundred years, but also in the art itself. In 1875, Caillebotte’s submission to the Salon, the annual elite art exhibition in Paris, The Floor Scrapers was unceremoniously rejected by the jury, perhaps not because some critics considered the composition “vulgar,” but simply because the subject matter and composition were too banal to incite interest or garner appreciation. During the next few years, the successful textile businessman became a patron of Degas, Monet, and Renoir, eventually bequeathing his large private collection to France. Independently wealthy like Wtewael, most of whose paintings were also kept in the private hands of his descendants, Caillebotte similarly produced art that remained mostly unknown to the public. While passing the rooms, charmed by his compositions of light and dark, I felt instantly transported onto the streets of Paris and into his Rainy Day, 1877, a huge canvas on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago. His Nude on a Couch, a docile female torso stretched on an oversized sofa dappled with placid colors, lost my interest. After passing the coarse torso of Man at His Bath, a robust figure of a working man seeing from the back and having stepped out of a copper tub, swiftly pointed me back for another round of Wtewael’s masterpieces.

De gustibus non est disputandum. In the arts, literature, and fashion, what moves is CHANGE. No matter how brilliant and evocative the vision, the time comes to discover new paths, while not forgetting the past.

Eva Jana Siroka, an art historian and artist born in Bratislava, Slovakia, received her doctorate at Princeton University. A Renaissance scholar with interest in princely patronage, especially Rudolfine Prague, she has been drawn to Spranger’s art for decades. My Life with Berti Spranger (2015) is an illustrated historical novel that touches on the famous artist. For further information, visit eva spranger art fashion vanichi