Male Nude Exhibition, Wallace Collection, London
Male Nude Exhibition, Wallace Collection, London

This exhibition, of nearly forty French drawings of male nude figures, all drawn between the late seventeenth and the late eighteenth centuries, is unprecedented in Britain. Lent by France’s equivalent of the Royal Academy, the Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, many of the extraordinary drawings are by artists represented in the Wallace Collection, such as Rigaud, Boucher, Nattier, Carle van Loo, Gros and Jean-Baptiste Isabey. The Wallace Collection displays one of the greatest collections of eighteenth-century French paintings in the world, and these drawings from Paris will make an excellent complement to them.

The Hertfords did not collect many academic or historical works, for which these drawings were the basis, though the 4th Marquess did acquire an outstanding group of paintings by Boucher.  In many ways, The Male Nude will offer visitors a new dimension and complete the jigsaw. Seen alongside our world-class holdings of eighteenth-century furniture and decorative arts, they will provide a thorough understanding of the period.

Painting in eighteenth-century France before the Revolution was centred on the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture which had been founded in 1648. The purpose of the Academy was to train the most important artists and to provide them with the raw materials for successful history painting, which was by far the most esteemed genre. Budding painters or sculptors would be apprenticed to a master, but much of their training would take place at the Academy where the drawing of the male human figure was at the core of the curriculum. Only after mastering the copying of drawings and engravings, and then casts of antique sculptures, would the student be allowed to progress to drawing the nude figure in the life class. The drawings they produced were so associated with the Academy that they came to be known as académies.

The male human figure was regarded as the very foundation of painting and sculpture; it had to be mastered by any aspiring artist of the highest class. No female artists were admitted to the Academy and all models were male. This practice in itself went on to create problems for artists who, lacking the necessary training to portray the female form, were compelled to search out models (not always in the most respectable and salubrious settings)!

The Academy’s training was learned and structured, and, although it was sometimes criticized for its rigour and insistence on discipline and uniformity, it produced superb draughtsmen. Some of the artists featured became painting Masters of their generation, focusing on historical and allegorical pictures. Others utilised their training in a variety of artistic fields, including Bachelier, who went on to assume the role of Director of Design and Decoration at the Sèvres porcelain factory, influencing many of the pieces exhibited in the Wallace Collection.

Variety and beauty are omnipresent in The Male Nude. The works show figures – sometimes single, sometimes two together - in an enormous variety of poses and in various degrees of light and shade. The study of physiognomic expression was also taught at the Academy, and the facial expressions of the figures always complement the poses they adopt.

As a descendant of the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, the Ä–cole nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts owns an incomparable collection of these académies which have come down to it directly from the Academy’s teaching classes. This exhibition at the Wallace Collection will be an excellent opportunity for collections at ENSBA to become much better known to a British audience, as well as allowing visitors an insight into this influential but now non-existent world.

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Wallace Collection
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Wallace Collection
Manchester Square
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