Who knew John Singer Sargent did erotica?

The sensual portraitist and war artist combined his two interests in this tender painting of two British soldiers
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Tommies Bathing (1918) by John Singer Sargent as reproduced in The Art of the Erotic
Tommies Bathing (1918) by John Singer Sargent as reproduced in The Art of the Erotic

Sex regularly crosses almost everyone's mind, especially those of great artists, yet sexual imagery isn’t always apparent in the canonical works of classic, modern or contemporary art. Our new book The Art of the Erotic reproduces erotic works by many famous artists, some of them surprising, such as the one above by John Singer Sargent. Here’s how our new book describes his watercolour of two naked soldiers.

“This quiet, contemplative picture of two soldiers resting by the water’s edge was painted during the First World War. Lying side by side, almost touching, the naked men look like lovers rather than combatants, and Sargent’s high, voyeuristic viewpoint adds to the tenderness of the image. Framed squarely by the blue-green grass, the sleeping figures look as if they are lying on a double bed. The alabaster whiteness of their skin contrasts with the warm yellow tones of the blades of grass that throw shadows across their bodies.

Little is known about Sargent’s private life, and although the image could be seen as homoerotic, it could also be interpreted as a plea for respite during one of Europe’s bitterest conflicts.

 

The Art of the Erotic

“Tommies Bathing was painted in 1918, during the bloodiest period of the war,” explains our book. “For four-and-a-half months, soldiers had battled along a 30-kilometre (19-mile) front of the Somme, and the combined total of French, German and British casualties had reached more than one million. Sargent, who was better known as a society portrait painter, was in France in search of a subject, having been commissioned by the British government to create the central painting for a Hall of Remembrance. He witnessed, at first hand, the atrocities of the Western Front, and made several studies of ‘Tommies’, or British soldiers, enjoying brief moments of respite before returning to the horrors of trench warfare and almost certain death.

"In this painting, the soldiers’ exhausted bodies, in a state of complete relaxation, echo the corpses on the battlefield, adding further poignancy to the picture. Sargent finally found his subject for the Hall of Remembrance in the victims of a gas attack, and created the epic painting Gassed, in which he depicted blind and wounded soldiers walking in slow formation across duckboards to a dressing station. Yet it is in the rapidly executed watercolour shown here that the depths of humanity shine through. The fluency of the painted surface suggests sensuality, implying that even in the darkest of places, warmth and desire can still be found.”

For more sexual insight into the lives of the artists, order a copy of The Art of the Erotic here.


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