11 March 2006 till 18 June 2006

The Naked Truth

Courbet and the 19th-century nude

Persbeeld tentoonstelling De naakte waarheid

In the 19th century, representations of the naked human body became a fully accepted part of Western European art. Modelled on the classical ideal of beauty and clothed in the decorum of mythology, historical incident or allegory, nudity was no problem. It was only when the Realists, headed by Gustave Courbet, stripped the nude of its surrounding narrative and idealised proportions that it became a subject of scandal. will show how the nude evolved during the 19th century from an idealised icon to a realistic representation of the naked human body. In the 19th century, drawing the naked human body was the key skill taught at the academies of art, with French art education serving as a model for the rest of Europe. Students began by copying sculptures made in classical antiquity, because they were the sole source of the contemporary ideal of beauty. Only when they could show that they had mastered that skill were they permitted to draw live models (who were always male, since female models – like female students – were then firmly excluded from the École des Beaux-Arts).

Around 1830, young artists began to challenge these methods of teaching. Encouraged in part by the new medium of photography, they wanted to record what they actually saw rather than constantly aim to portray an ideal. They preferred local farmland to idyllic but unreal landscapes, were more interested in ordinary people than in the heroes of mythology, and liked nudes that were realistic and imperfect rather than idealised. The work of Gustave Courbet and Auguste Rodin rocked society: they not only represented flesh-and-blood people, but they did so in formats hitherto reserved for grand history paintings.


Courbet’s working methods were very different from those prescribed by the academy: he collected existing photographs of nudes and even had models pose for photographers. Because his paintings showed female nudes in surroundings which were obviously contemporary, the women in them were perceived by viewers as not just nude but actually naked. The powerful Salon, which enforced classicism in all things, was naturally quick to reject them. Rodin, who declared that nature was his only teacher, likewise referred to photographs. His realistic approach met with frequent incomprehension and his sculptures gave rise to repeated scandal – not so much because they were of nudes, but because they did not reflect the classical ideal of beauty.

Although Courbet and Rodin changed the way nudes were depicted for ever, the Salon would continue to adhere to the traditional rules of the classical ideal of beauty for many decades. Towards the end of the 19th century the art academies finally began to accept photography as an aid to artists and even to establish their own collections of photographs. This exhibition will include not only nine major nudes by Courbet, a number of sculptures by Rodin and work by artists such as Cabanel, Ingres, Gérôme and Moreau, but also a large number of historical photographs from the collection of the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-arts in Paris.


This exhibition will be accompanied by a Dutch-language book, published by Terra Lannoo (€ 29.95).

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