There are myriads of conversations regarding the depiction of the female form in art. This exhibition will explore just one idea regarding the representation of women in art. The visual tradition of the reclining female form, beginning in the Renaissance, welcomes viewers to observe the female figure as she rests passively, often in a state of intimacy. This tradition has many implications, one being that artists emphasize women as delicate and decorative creatures. Painting women in a docile nature supports the social idea that the ideal woman is dainty, introspective, fragile, and meant to be looked at. Male artists have found fascination in emphasizing ideal feminine beauty through a woman’s reverie, often rendering women in interior spaces in poses that draw attention to the feminine physique. For 19th century American artist John White Alexander, women were meant to be visually delighted in. His aestheticism was shaped primarily by his decorative treatment of women in restful, pensive, and private settings. In doing this, Alexander adds to the constraint on women in society, labeling them as domestic yet sensual creatures. He also adds to a tradition of images of women in a similar state of repose and sensuality – constructing the ideal that women are decorative creatures meant to be gazed upon. Each image in this gallery plays a role in said tradition and functions as a visual reference for John White Alexander’s work, Repose.
Known to be one of the earliest depictions of the reclining female nude, Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus places a nude form of a woman before the viewer for the sake of mere visual consumption. Giorgione gets rid of all the usual surrounding iconography and paints Venus in a sensual pose, resting in what would be familiar landscape for his Venetian audience. She is sleeping, emphasizing that she is there to gaze upon. She is passive and at rest. Her figure and the setting compliment each other as the curvature of her body relates to the curving hills. Giorgione creates an image that begins a visual tradition.
Paul Gaugin, Spirit of the Dead Watching, 1892
Oil on canvas, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY, USA
This image of Gaugin’s young Tahitian mistress is strictly sexual. Her reclining figure, like the image of Venus, is for visual consumption. Her face is partially hidden and she lies chest down, entirely submissive to the gaze of the viewer. With hard curving lines and contrasting colors, Gaugin draws attention to the curves of her unclothed body. Her figure is at rest, lying intimately on her bed. She is another example of a reclining female nude who is portrayed for visual pleasure.
Walter Richard Sickert, Reclining Nude (Thin Adeline), 1906Oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1984. 433.24
Another image of a highly sexualized woman, Sickert’s painting uses the visual trope of a reclining woman for a different emphasis. The figure of the woman is resting on her bed, arms outstretched, the focal point of the work on her female genitalia. Her sprawled position invites the viewer to focus on the sexual nature of her form. The face of the woman is distant, Sickert’s painterly stroke blurring her features and drawing attention to her passivity. Through her pose, the crude nature of the composition, and the intimacy of setting, the female figure in this work is objectified and meant for viewing.
Francisco Goya, La Maja Vestida (The Clothed Maja), 1800Oil on canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain
This work is one of two in a series: one portrays this woman clothed, as seen here, and the other portrays her in the nude. Now displayed side by side, this work is another example of a reclining female figure. In this work, she is resting on a bed, her arms behind her head. Her facial expression is subtle and sultry as she calmly looks upon the viewer. Though she seems less relaxed, her pose intentionally accentuates the curves of her body. The heavy use of curving lines in her breasts, waist, and hips draw the eye along her form. With arms lifted out of the way, the viewer is invited to observe her decorative clothing and physique.
Edmund Charles Tarbell, Across the Room, 1899
Oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 67.187.141
This work differs from the others in composition. Instead of a woman rendered up close lying in a horizontal position, Tarbell places her in the corner, distant from view. The use of negative space; however, still draws the viewer’s eye to focus on the woman resting on the sofa. She is adorned in a full beautiful gown, entirely at rest. She becomes, like the piles of fabric around her, another decoration for the room. She is far from the viewer, disengaged in the composition. Instead of emphasizing the curvature of her body or her sexuality, Tarbell is using the setting and her composure to depict women as delicate contemplative creatures. She is, like the others in this exhibition, a visual treat for the viewer.
John White Alexander, Repose, 1895
Oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1980.224
John White Alexander’s Repose displays the female form both elegantly and sensually. This portrayal of dancer Loïe Fuller becomes a part of the visual tradition of the reclining female figure, in addition using her languorous pose to comment on society’s ideal of feminine beauty. She lies in a position similar to Gaugin’s mistress, her arms just covering the bottom of her face. Her expression is sultry, almost sleepy, like that of the La Maja Vestida. The curving lines of the background, similar to the Giorgione piece, compliment and draw attention to the curves of her body. Her dress is adornment for her body, just as she is adornment for the sofa she rests on. Though her feminine sexuality is not as blatant as Sickert’s Reclining Nude, her sexuality is seen subtly through the intense curvature of her body and soft suggestive gaze. Like all of the previous works, Alexander uses his model’s reclining pose to emphasize her delicate feminine features. On display for visual consumption, her purpose is to decorate the interior space she inhabits.