Who knew Renoir did erotica?
Is this painting of a girl bathing entirely innocent - or loaded with sexual suggestion?
Do all nude artworks carry some erotic charge? The great British art historian and critic Sir Kenneth Clark certainly believed so. "No nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling," Clark is quoted as saying in the introduction to our new book The Art of the Erotic. "The desire to grasp and be united with another human is so fundamental a part of our nature that our judgement of what is known as ‘pure form’ is inevitably influenced by it, and one of the difficulties of the nude as a subject for art is that these instincts cannot be hidden."
Whether all nudes should be regarded as erotica is less clear. The author Rowan Pelling distinguishes between erotic works that predate Sigmund Freud's early 20th century development of theories surrounding unconscious sexual desires, and works of art made after Freud's work was well established.
"Until the twentieth century, erotic art was mostly concerned with some form of visual seduction," writes Pelling, "but in the post-Freud world sexual representation becomes darker and more complex. An increasingly large number of artists tilt themselves at confrontation, so that the image becomes concerned less with what the viewer feels they want, than with what they fear they want."
This 1892 painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir of a young girl is a remnant from that earlier, time. Our new book describes the work as "an idealized, sensuous but innocent nude whose body is offered unchallengingly to the gaze."
Renoir was a leading figure within impressionism, and this work displays a lack of clear delineation common to the group, as well as a straightforward interest in simple, visual pleasures. Straight, male viewers may well look on this picture with a lesser sense of guilt than they might feel were they to chance upon a real girl in this state of undress. However, that uncomplicated pleasure is brought about by Renoir's complex, artful rendering of this central figure.
"She is monumental in the canvas, her head nearly touching the top edge, while her legs extend past the bottom edge, cutting her off at the shins," explains The Art of the Erotic. "While such proximity to the viewer might have provoked discomfort, given her nudity, Renoir averts the young woman’s face by turning it in profile, a tacit invitation to look.
Approached with a certain mindset, Renoir's girl could be viewed and enjoyed alongside his equally lovely paintings of lively outdoor restaurants, parks and children at play. The picture becomes more problematic when we consider how the painter has manipulated the girl in the picture to fit his own attitude towards women.
"Renoir combines sensuality with an apparent guilelessness created partly by the averted face of his young model, and partly by the rosy flush blossoming on her cheek, as well as the slightest hint of a smile on her coral lips," explains The Art of the Erotic, "perhaps the visual translation of Renoir’s adage that women’s mouths were for kissing, not speaking."
For more on the fertile juncture between fine art and sex, order a copy of The Art of the Erotic here.