Idealising the body: The Male Nude at the Wallace Collection

By Sarah Jackson | 30 October 2013

Exhibition review: The Male Nude: Eighteenth-century Drawings from the Paris Academy, Wallace Collection, London, until January 19 2014

Drawing of two nude men draped over a fallen horse.
Undated drawing of two men draped over a fallen horse© ENSBA, Paris
Depictions of the nude figure have long been a preoccupation in Western art, from Ancient Greece right up to contemporary performance artists such as Marina Abramović.

In fine art, nudes are not supposed to be an accurate representation of the real naked body but an idealised representation. Artists were supposed to be able to look at their subjects and distil the very best aesthetic from their all too mortal bodies.

With this in mind, it’s not surprising the bodies portrayed in The Male Nude at the Wallace Collection are entirely beautifully sculpted and handsome. The male nude was considered at the time to be the idealised human form, and the study of it was an essential foundation for young artists – offered exclusively at the Paris Academy.

The Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture (Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture) in Paris was founded in the 17th century in order to professionalise French artists. It offered its students two exclusive advantages to non-members: the discussion of art theory and criticism and the opportunity to draw male nudes.

The ability to draw naked figures was vital to successful history painting (which depict scenes in narrative stories, whether these are historical or not) – by far the most esteemed genre of painting at the time. Despite this, there are few examples of the genre in the Wallace Collection; The Male Nude is an attempt to fill in the gap.

The drawings, lent by the French equivalent to the Royal Academy (École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts), reveal the variety of poses models were required to stand in for up to two hours per day, six days a week. The poses were arranged with the intention that these drawings could be developed into history paintings.

Some drawings begin this process already, such as an image of two men draped over a fallen horse; one assumes that the horse was the artist’s imagination transforming a box or plinth or similar prop. Again, here we can clearly see how the students were being trained to see beyond what was presented to them in reality and transforming into a higher art.

There are several examples of different artists interpreting the same pose, such as Isabey and Lagrenée’s interpretations of a man seated and resting on his right hand. The drawings make an interesting comparison into the two men’s technique and skill, but they also reveal the hierarchical seating arrangements of the classroom.

That the drawings are skilled and beautiful is obvious, but there is little here that will excite novices of 18th century French drawing. What might prove of more interest to more casual visitors is the exhibition trail through 10 objects found in the museum, intended to link the Male Nude to the permanent collection.

These include A Lady at her Toilet (La Toilette) by Jan-Antoine Watteau, a shocking (at the time) depiction of a nude woman in a contemporary domestic setting. The Academy’s decision to only offer lessons in the male nude was partly an aesthetic choice but also a practical one. It was assumed that a naked woman in a room full of men would create chaos. This meant that students inevitably had a large gap in their knowledge.

Boucher’s skill at drawing the female figure was said to have been because he had a beautiful wife: those without such advantages had to resort to hiring women to pose for them, which would have been considered close to prostitution at the time. Because of this shameful association, Watteau is said to have burnt many of his most "obscene" works of art before his death; now only three survive.

Without specialist knowledge of the subject, The Male Nude may quickly cause gallery fatigue for visitors. However, it is well worth the investment of time in both reading the introductory wall panels and taking in the exhibition trail to set the drawings in context and bring them to life.

  • Open 10am-5pm (closed December 24-26). Admission free. Follow the museum on Twitter @WallaceMuseum.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

More Pictures:

Drawing of nude seated man leading on his right arm.
Jean-Baptiste Lagrenée, Seated man leaning on his right arm (1789)© ENSBA, Paris
Drawing of a nude man sitting on a rock and leaning on his right arm.
Jean-Baptiste Isabey, Seated man leaning on his right arm, (1789)© ENSBA, Paris
Drawing of a male nude sitting on a plinth and leading on his right arm.
René-Antoine Houasse, Narcissus at the fountain (1686)© ENSBA, Paris

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Follow Sarah Jackson on Twitter @SazzyJackson.

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