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"...the simply beauty of the attitude so struck me when I saw it [the Esquiline Venus] in Rome for the first time four years ago that immediately on my return I took it up as a subject for my picture. Now, such an attempt at restoration appears to me to be a perfectly legitimate aim for a painter. To represent in painting the 'motive' which suggests the statue, with the rich setting of architecture and colour which the sculptor is unable to give, is surely within the province of the artist; and the action of the figure, one of those simple everyday movements which especially lend themselves to artistic treatment, seems to me quite a suitable for a picture as a statue. It is obvious, too, that there is no room for drapery in this particular subject; if done at all it should be as the statue; the forced introduction of drapery would be a prudery which would increase the evil, if evil there is....I had hoped that by my attempt at realizing the sculptor's motive, combining with it such a surrounding as should not only enrich the picture and form a beautiful setting to a beautiful figure, but give some idea of what the bath-room of a lovely Greek or Roman girl might be, before the days when white glazed tiles formed the highest ideal of decoration, I should lift my figure out of the category of the baigneuses [bathers] of the French Salon."
Poynter, Letter to the Editor (The Times of London, May 28, 1885)
Sir Edward John Poynter painted several versions of the Diadumenè, all derived from the Esquiline Venus and named after the Diadumenos ("diadem binder") of Polyclitus (Pliny, XXXIV.55). Poynter refers to these classical antecedents in defending his work against charges of indecency. Barely visible in the background, there even is a silver statuette in the same pose.
The pictures portray the model binding her hair with a fillet (a strip of ribbon or cloth) in preparation for bathing. As Poynter indicates in a long letter to The Times, the little finger of the left hand visible on the back of the head and the direction of the fillet dictated his recreation of the pose, the left arm raised to hold the hair in place while the fabric was wound by the right.
In 1893, Poynter felt compelled to drape the larger Diadumenè, presumably because he could not find a buyer for the nude version. It now is in a private collection.
The picture above was shown at the Royal Academy in 1884, and possibly at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1885, the same year that Poynter displayed a larger version of the subject at the Academy. That figure became the focus of a controversy in the pages of the The Times of London regarding the treatment of the nude in painting and its suitability as a subject for public exhibition.
It began with a letter of May 20, 1885 from "A British Matron," protesting against "the indecent pictures that disgrace our exhibitions" and their "utter want of delicacy." No less degraded were the galleries themselves, "which ought to be sources of innocence and ennobling refinement to both sexes, of all ages and all ranks of society."
Poynter's response is quoted above, but he was resigned to the fact that "on a subject of this kind there are no means of arriving at a conclusion; no arguments can touch either those who look for indecency where none is meant, or those who, like the 'British Matron,' honestly turn away in horror at the supposed depravity which permits of such things being painted and exhibited."
A more pointed reply came from another reader, who suggests that the Matron did not go far enough in her censure, criticizing the painter who had only copied nature and not God for having created such an indelicate object in the first place.
Poynter himself wearily remarks that "An artist, especially if his taste is for classic art, likes for once in his life to try his hand at a simple nude figure as the sole subject of his pictures. M. Tadema has done it, taking as his 'Sculptor's Model' this very statue."
Poynter also comments on a letter of May 25 to The Times, written by "H," remarking that "It is a most temperate review of the question, and, as far as arguments can convince, as convincing as it can be in showing the world of British matrons that the moral sense of the question has another side which they have not dreamt of." There, the author says that
"The terms upon which the undraped is a noble subject of art are these—(1) a manifest appeal to the love of beauty, and not to appetite; (2) an ideal preservation, and not a literal transcript of individual fact; a generalization in the imagination, and not a photographic record of the particular; (3) the observance of certain special artistic conventions as old as Praxiteles....Not only is the human form and complexion the most exquisitely lovely thing nature, but the subtle difficulties of painting it are so great, and the delight which it gives us when successful is so intense, that every other kind of art is distinctly humbler in aim....Convention, and convention alone, is the measure of the decent where motive and intention are perfectly pure. Neither painters nor critics recognize this quite as patiently as they should. An artist, burning often with pure love of his art, defies the conventions, and he outrages worthy people. It is quite true that conventions my need to be altered; but they must be altered slowly and by imperceptible degrees, or morality itself will suffer. It is also true that the ignorant and the inexperienced are often shocked by habits which to the experienced are mere conventions....Hence when an artist introduces a new practice he does it at his own peril. Consummate art will probably justify him; but, as the conventions of artistic morality are not his to make, but are the product of society itself and public opinion, his novelty may justly offend; and not the ignorant alone, for wantonly to offend the ignorant is justly to offend the wise."
A number of nude works were displayed at the Royal Academy and Grosvenor Gallery in 1885, which prompted the letter to The Times from "A British Matron." It was suspected to have been written by John Callcott Horsley, the treasurer of the Academy and an opponent of the nude and the teaching of life drawing to female students. Certainly, he was the author of the letter signed "H" to which Poynter replied.
See also two other pictures exhibited in 1885: John William Waterhouse's St. Eulalia and Charles William Mitchell's Hypatia, martyrs to intolerance and both partially nude. If Poynter protests too much, consider his painting of 1903: The Cave of the Storm Nymphs.
References: Letters to the Editor, The Times (London) (May 20, 22, 23, 25, 28, 1885); Exposed: The Victorian Nude (2001) edited by Alison Smith; "The 'British Matron' and the Body Beautiful: The Nude Debate of 1885" by Alison Smith, After the Pre-Raphaelites: Art and Aestheticism in Victorian England (1999) edited by Elizabeth Prettejohn.
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