The male nude in 18th century French art

Art movement
Among the subjects students at the 17th and 18th century French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture were obliged to study was the human figure, and a mastery of the male nude by both those studying paintings and sculpture was an absolute requirement.
The academy school, the École des Beaux Arts (now the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts), was founded as part of the Royal Academy by Louis XIV in 1648 to provide a training for painters, sculptors and architects. Each year prizes were awarded (the Prix de Rome) that entitled the winners to reside for a period of three to five years,at the Rome Academy, now situated in the magnificent Villa Medici,  where they were given expert instruction and exposure to the wonders of antiquity. Following the abolition of the prize by the then minister of Culture in 1968, artists continued to be offered the opportunity to reside at the Academy for up to eighteen months, but without the rigorous course of study prescribed by the directors of the 18th century academy.

Portrayal of the male nude in sculpture has its origins in Greek and Roman art, on murals and even household objects. Understanding the anatomy of the male body was considered an essential for serious artists, as it was believed that a clothed figure could not be portrayed well if the artist did not have thorough understanding of the underlying anatomy. Jean-Baptiste Oudry is renowned today as the foremost painter of animals working in France in the 18th century, challenged only by Alexandre Francois Desportes who, however, concentrated almost exclusively on the portrayal of hunting dogs, the animals they hunted and birds with the occasional still life. Here, however, Oudry has demonstrated that even while he could still claim to be the supreme painter of animals, both wild and domestic, he had not lost any of the skills he had acquired as a student in this vigorous portrayal of a powerful male nude.
François Boucher, Academic Study of a Reclining Male Nude, Black chalk, red chalk, white chalk, on cream laid paper, 35,6 x 44,8 cm, c. 1750. Chicago Art Institute, Regenstein Endowment Fund. François Boucher, Academic Study of a Reclining Male Nude, Black chalk, red chalk, white chalk, on cream laid paper, 35,6 x 44,8 cm, c. 1750. Chicago Art Institute, Regenstein Endowment Fund.
Jean-Baptiste Oudry, Le pêcheur et le petit poisson, Oil on canvas, 120 x 172 cm, 1739. Jean-Baptiste Oudry, Le pêcheur et le petit poisson, Oil on canvas, 120 x 172 cm, 1739.
This large scale example of the male nude in its angular pose recalls the “morceaux de reception” presented by sculptors seeking membership in the Royal Academy. A selection of such works may be seen in the sculpture galleries of the Louvre, Paris – Puget’s Milo of Croton being a good example of a contorted male nude, in this example being attacked by a lion. Artists studying at the Ecole des Beaux Arts of the French Royal Academy were expected to master the portrayal of the male nude whatever their future speciality, and the same models appear in the work of different artists even over quite long periods. Later in the century Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy Trioson converted what was merely intended as a painted study of the male nude into his magnificent Sleep of Endymion, of which a small variant sketch is presented in the banner above. It was probably presented to Louis Napoleon, king of Holland, founder of the Rijksmuseum.
By Guy Stair Sainty
Owner Stair Sainty Gallery

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