Aesthetics of the Nude: Childe Hassam and George Ault

In his 1988 treatise on Pablo Picasso’s painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), art historian Leo Steinberg asks us, “Are the anatomies of these women… a matter of changing taste, or of substituting the abstract expressiveness of sharp angles for anatomical curves?”[1] The subtext of Steinberg’s query is clear: is it the way the nude is painted that gives it meaning, or is it the body being depicted? While pragmatic scholars might decry the “gaze” of the male artist and the presentation of women as objects, many emphasize the intersection between life-drawing and the rise of modernist vocabularies, including Cubism.[2] In two paintings of female nudes from the early twentieth century currently at Hawthorne Fine Art, the disparate styles used index the artists’ intentions.

George Ault’s (1889–1948) Reclining Nude (1930) demonstrates how mimesis can disarm the viewer through the shock of the “real” [fig. 1]. Here the artist, who suffered a string of family tragedies throughout the 1920s, revels in a dark palette and strong contours to underline the drama of the woman’s form. Likely painted for the Downtown Gallery’s exhibition “Artists’ Models: Figure Painting by Leading American Artists” in October of 1930, this work demonstrates how Ault appropriated the nineteenth century tradition of reclining females into the expressionist style of the Ashcan school.[3] Known for urban landscapes, here Ault uses contrast and mood to create an experimental nude.

Conversely, Childe Hassam (1859-1935) renders his nude of 1918 in a soft, impressionist style that modestly conceals her. In A Bather, Silver Beach Grass, Hassam uses a light and airy scheme to capture his subject at Silver Beach on the East River in the Bronx [fig. 2]. The viewer is encouraged to see her as if she were a classical Greek nude or a caryatid – an ancient temple column in the shape of a female. Hassam’s figure is also reminiscent of the trend, circa 1907 and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles, of the “reclining nude in vertical presentation” who claims “undiminished scope in the field.”[4] There is something intimately innocent about Hassam’s nude in comparison to Ault’s, despite the fact that Hassam’s frolics on a public beach while Ault’s nude reclines in the private studio.

Lizzie Frasco

[1] Steinberg, Leo. “The Philosophical Brothel,” October 44 (Spring, 1988): 11.

[2] To read more on the theoretical implications of the “gaze” and the subject’s sudden awareness of “being seen,” see Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Penguin, 1979).

[3] Lubowsky, Susan. George Ault (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1988), 23. The history of the nude bather begins in Classical times but culminates in modern art with Paul Cézanne’s (1839–1906) series of bathers circa 1906. 1907 also saw the painting of Henri Matisse’s (1869–1954) Blue Nude and André Derain’s (1880-1954) Bathers (shown at the Salon des Independants). These works are preceded by the nineteenth century tradition of the Turkish dancers in paintings of the “Orient” like Eugène Delacroix’s (1798–1863) Femmes d’Alger and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s (1780-1867) Turkish Bath. The “reclining” nude was made most famous by Édouard Manet’s (1832-1883) Olympia of 1863, which builds on Titian’s Venus of Urbino from 1538.

[4] Steinberg, “The Philosophical Brothel,” 28. The vertical reclining nude can also be seen in a ceramic by Henri Matisse from 1907.

Fig. 1 –  George Ault, Reclining Nude, 1930, Oil on canvas, 19 x 26 inches.

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Fig. 2 – Childe Hassam, A Bather, Silver Beach Grass, 1918, Oil on panel, 9 5/16 x 5 9/16 inches.

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