Woman in Art/Chapter 9 - Wikisource, the free online library
The Nude In Art. Chaste versus Sensual. Masterpieces of the Creator. The Mother the Best Teacher.
You cannot describe spirit. You only see results. Like the breath it is constant and you feel it; but like the wind, "thou canst not tell whence it cometh, nor whither it goeth, so is every one that is born of the spirit." The spirit that animates the face and actions, that lives and moves in the exquisite body of a dimpled babe, is fascinating. You feel that such purity and innocence hardly belong to this world.
Your ideal of life, of beauty, of values is high or low according to the gauge of your own spirit. With an artist striving for the ideal this is more noticeable. We realize how the ideal springing from the mind of man must needs be expressed through material media according to the laws of the arts and sciences, words as literature being classed as art. We also know that words are not always adequate to the full meaning or beauty of an idea of delicate import. Words stand for things, but the thing must come in contact with the mind before the spirit of it can touch spirit; the impression made depends upon the mental condition at the point of contact with the senses.
To illustrate: A little child was near an open window one May morning poring over a picture book. Suddenly she dropped her book and stood breathing in deep delight, with eyes full of wonder and question. What could it be?
"Mother," she exclaimed, "there is something here like—like—why, something like angels, Mother. What can it be?" and she cast about the room an inquiring glance.
"Look out of the window, dear," said her mother, "and you will see where it comes from."
The child looked into a mass of Parma violets just unfolding to the sun.
"I see white flowers, Mother, lots and lots of them, but—"
"You smell their fragrance, dear; you see only the violets, but it is their sweetness, their spirit that you love, because it touches your spirit, and you will remember the fragrance always—it is not like that of any other flower."
You have heard the clergyman in the pulpit read the words: "Consider the lilies how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin." There you have a panorama in words that form a series of instantaneous pictures in your mind; but words or pictures do not touch your soul as does the spotless lily, dewy with the purity and freshness that is its natal offering to the dawn. The flash of its glistening petals almost pulses in the sunlight, so dazzling is its purity. The distilled drop of honey in the corolla, the gold dust of the stamens, the graceful curve and droop of the petals—a moment ago all were a sealed bud e'er the magic of light unclasped it, so softly, you would not have seen it had your eyes been diverted a moment, if you had not been watching and considering. They toil not, neither do they spin—not for their beauty, they are as God made them.
The masterpiece of the Creator is the human body—but that is only part of it—the everlasting spirit within, made in His likeness, to be worked and polished in earth's lapidary; that is the marvel and objective of creation.
Why? Because "Ye are the temple of the living God."
Your body is sacred. Treat it accordingly. In art, in literature, in life.
A babe is a bud of beauty. Form, flesh, curves, dimples, moist wisps and glint of curls, skin like a rose petal, witchery and sparkle of eyes, sensitive lips that speak without words, hands and feet that make their way into the sanctuary of your heart before they know how to use them, motions that are grace itself, with a heart and mind pure and guileless, for a baby's heart is new.
Your own thought of a lovely figure is, perhaps, more lovely than any developed figure you ever saw in marble or on canvas, for your thought lends an ethereal atmosphere though you may not be able to express it in art.
The tender blending of light and shade, curves and color-tones of flesh, pulsing warmth and glow radiating from the spirit within, chaste in idea, in subject—such a nude has a charm and conveys a sacredness of the body as the work of the Creator.
The very illusiveness of spirit gives the greatest difficulty in painting the nude, and has caused that branch of delineation to be the high-water mark of excellence among painters. When they cannot reach it, the public has the opportunity to see poor or bad art. But there is no excuse for exhibiting bad art, bad painting, or indecent and suggestive subjects.
A critic who has the courage of his convictions has said that "the women of America should refuse to patronize any art exhibit in the future at which is shown a suggestive nude." Again: "The cornerstone of civilization is Woman, because she is the cornerstone of the home; hence note the responsibility."
The moulding of thought, appreciation of values, of character, is within the mother's power and privilege even more than in the power of the man.
A graduate from one of the largest art schools in this country was being commiserated because her marriage had seemingly put a quietus on the very promising work of her student days.
"I have not given up art," she said, "but am modeling a perfectly good husband, and moulding two dear little daughters and a son to help in the uplift of their generation." Her art, too, is developing.
Here we have responsibility converted into privilege, and the future will reap a harvest because of her love and her art.
The critic above quoted concerning good and bad art concluded with the following: "Woman, as she values her own soul, should never debase herself to even semi-uncover herself in public, because it lessens her power—her spirit-power over man, and the man (and no less the child) who does not appreciate the modesty of womanhood is unworthy the name man."
We need to remember that the perfection of the physical beauty of a work of art is always in proportion to its moral beauty.
Titian painted a picture that seems to be an allegory of this very theme. He called it "Sacred and Profane Love," but has left it for everyone to decide according to his notion. Critics have read it forward and backward, but always with difficulty of interpretation. There is no hesitancy concerning its value as a work of art; that is $200,000. If you care for a personal reading, I should say: Titian, the master of color, has depicted the influence of the two loves that knock at the human heart. To which does the child Innocence belong?
Thus far saints, sinners, sibyls, and angels have appeared draped. The law of the church forbade the exposing of the person in ecclesiastical paintings, but with more of allegory and personifying of the subjective the unseen, the imaginary, the nude was more often seen, and the subjects named were most fittingly expressed by the delicacy of tint, vanishing shadows, curves and lines of the human form. It is the ethereal that inhabits "this all too solid flesh" that the artist feels and endeavors to catch; but spirit is ephemeral.
A few illustrations in contrast will illumine what has already been said. It is doubtful if any young person has stepped into the Rubens Gallery in Paris without an instinctive shrinking at finding himself or herself in the presence of partly nude women. The Medician Queen of France was the voluptuous type of woman that could pose for all phases of her royal existence in jewels and gems, with a mere suggestion of costly fabric somewhere in proximity—it mattered little if it had any use beyond costliness and color.
Peter Paul Rubens, accustomed to the well-clothed, substantial type of the women of Flanders, visited Italy, especially Venice, where he became enamored of light and color, sunshine and pigment, and the flesh tones from such past masters as Gentile Bellini, Luini, Guido Reni, and Titian; returning to his cloudy Antwerp by the sea, he lavished his assimilated impressions and color equipment on many worthy canvases; but fame and gold lured him to the French court, and the canvases referred to resulted.
In the same style of drawing and beauty of color, Rubens painted "The Judgment of Paris," in which three over-fed females in a state of nudity have no excuse for being save a tale of mythology and the artist's desire to paint the nude. There is no modesty, no purity of spirit, and the beauty is solely in the color. Mercury, scepter in hand, seems best man to Paris, who is too bewildered to make his choice, while his winged feet suggest the fleetness of the vision, and as in a previous chapter where Cleopatra reveals her beauty to Cæsar, we are reminded of the "thievish glance." Exquisite in color, it seems to lack in grace and form; innocence, however, is indicated by the browsing sheep nearby.
It is one of those mythical stories that lose out when put upon canvas even by a master hand. We place it on the page of profane art. The pure ethereal element of allegory is lacking. One wishes his subject might not have profaned his art.
An eighteenth century painting by David represents Paris under different circumstances. The figures are worked out as if chiseled from Pentelic marble in days of Greek sculpture rather than in terms of brush and paint in eighteenth century France. The picture is more like a frozen subject, hard and cold. It radiates no warmth. Further on we will refer to it for comparison.
One of our present-day Americans has gone back to classic Greece and found a delicate subject for the nude, and treated it with real delicacy. J. H. Fry has brought to the light of our day, "The Silver-footed Thetis, Daughter of the Ancient Deep," who unwittingly plagued the faith of Jupiter and Juno. Against the exquisite blue-greens of the Meditenanean Sea and the red-brown of the rocks that forbid, yet guard the waters, Thetis is seated with naiad-like grace gazing into the clear depths from which she was born. There is a naturalness, hence a charm, in the transparent water; the flesh tint and texture seem to radiate life, and as one has said, "nakedness is idealized out of it." It represents a water spirit.
Another exquisite nude is from the easel of Sir Frederick Leighton, England's most poetic painter of the nineteenth century. A tall figure of exceeding grace and beauty stands between the marble columns of a Greek bath; a bit of drapery from an uplifted arm falls behind her, the other rests lightly against a column as she steps into the water. "The Bath" gives a reason for the pose, and the setting is dignified and appropriate. One may study the proportions and grace with pure pleasure, because the subject is pure, also the spirit of the painter, whose object was to paint pure beauty.
The question is often asked, "What shall we do with the nude in art?" "As a community we inherited prudery from our English forebears. More than that we have surpassed them in fastidiousness. Those who have studied the matter know that the nude, painted purely for the sake of its beauty, as most of it is, demoralizes nobody's mind. It is the straining to conceal the nude which injures morals. * * * * * The writer has lived long enough to know intimately a generation of boys and men, girls and women, who have spent years in the life classes, and have gone out into the world to do their work. Are these not the salt of the earth?" "Artists sometimes sin; so do preachers, doctors, and merchants, but the vast majority are as well behaved as anybody. Let good nudes be hung on the walls of every schoolroom, from infant classes to high school rooms, so that children may grow up with them."
A case that illustrates the point is, a little two and a half year old boy in his crib by his mother's bed, awoke as mother stepped from her morning bath into her room, thinking he had not yet awakened. Rubbing sleep from his eyes as she entered, the baby voice saluted her—"Hello, mama Venus." A Venus d'Milo had long stood in her room, nor had she given it a thought. If you would have your children grow up happy and normal, and as near perfect as is possible for them to be, teach them the beauty of their bodies with the best undraped art.