ProvenanceBuschlen Mowatt Gallery, Vancouver, BC
Private Collection, Vancouver, BC, acquired from above 2001
Private Collection, Florida
When asked to imagine contemporary or modern art, what does your mind conjure? It could be the stark minimalism of Agnes Martin, the dynamic abstraction of Sam Francis, or in this case, the coolly detached Pop of Tom Wesselmann. On the surface, these works and similar pieces seem united by a break from the history of art. Gone are references to other artists and to traditions of art.
Dig a little deeper and the Wesselmann painting reveals itself as indebted to a history of art, specifically a history of nude. Wesselmann pushes the possibilities of this tradition by commenting on society’s mores. But before we can understand how this painting fits this lineage, we must first survey its history and evolution.
The nude has long been an important part of art and society with some of humanity’s earliest artworks being nudes, including the Venus of Willendorf. The most commonly understood function of this 29,500-year-old figure is that it was a fertility figure, due to the curved emphasis on body parts associated with birth and childbearing.
Jumping to ancient Greece, two different figural statues continue the lineage of the nude – the male kouros and female kore. Although both often functioned as offerings, only the male is depicted without clothing. The homoeroticism of Ancient Greece pushes us to grapple with a question that will surface time and again when confronting the naked form – how much does eroticism play in interpreting or consuming these images?
For example, the slightly later Greek sculpture, Aphrodite of Knidos, by Praxiteles is often credited as one of the first female nudes in Greek history. Carved for a temple to Aphrodite, the sculpture has a clear religious function; however, one of the most recited stories about the work is that the blot on her leg came from the attempted consummation by a young man. The original has been lost to history, yet its influence can be felt in its numerous copies and riffs – both in the classical world and as we will see, in the Renaissance.
With the fall of Rome, so too did the nude fall out of favor in art. It was only the Renaissance’s rediscovery of Classical Antiquity that the nude returned in prominence. In this era, the naked form flourished – in sculpture, painting, drawing, architecture. Prominent examples include the Venus of Urbino by Titian and the Rokeby Venus by Diego Velázquez. In these icons of Renaissance art ask us to classical references and its sexuality.
The reclining nude of Titian’s painting will become a common pose – a nod to an earlier sculpture of Classical Antiquity, which we will discuss at length later, while also building up new troves of symbolism. And in the work by Velázquez, his only extant nude painting, there are questions of taste, of culture, of private consumption. Nudes were rare in Spanish art of the time, suppressed by religious fervor, yet the subject was heavily collected by the royal court and other nobles. Perhaps under the guise of classical references, the eroticism of the nudes can be elided.
As has only been briefly touched upon, we must also think about for whom these artworks were made. In these pieces, the presumed audience is cultured, wealthy, and more than likely male. Notwithstanding the impassioned works of artists like Artemisia Gentileschi, the male perspective is prioritized, framing female subjects less as individuals and more as symbols or objects to be consumed. Moreover, there are issues of class – who else could collect nudes safely except for nobility?
The male gaze becomes more evident as we continue through Western art history such as the rococo The Blonde Odalisque by Françoise Boucher or The Naked Maja by Francisco Goya. Although the artworks reference both Classical Antiquity as well as Renaissance art, while the women’s sexuality and by extension the viewer’s possible arousal is on full display. In fact these references would save Goya from the Spanish Inquisition as the painting’s heritage validated the risqué subject matter.
If the Old Master paintings could hide behind classical references, Manet subverts this trope. Although the Impressionist painter quotes Titian’s Venus of Urbino in the figure’s pose, he does not hide the model beneath the guise of the Roman god Venus. Instead, he presents her as a prostitute. Her strong gaze and symbols of wealth let us know that there is no shame, nothing to hide. The work caused outrage and controversy because of its frank depiction of the model, Victorine Meurent, as prostitute. As Manet’s friend and writer Émile Zola wrote,
When our artists give us Venuses, they correct nature, they lie. Édouard Manet asked himself why lie, why not tell the truth; he introduced us to Olympia, this fille of our time, whom you meet on the sidewalks.
But, in all the attention that has been paid to the model, only a small fraction has been given to the maid in the background. While this essay does not have the space for a thorough investigation, we cannot ignore the cultural and racial implications at play here both within historical context and through a contemporary lens. What does it mean that Manet included her in the work? What does her inclusion say about the nude? What is the relationship between the two women? How does this relationship inform our interpretation of the painting and of nudity in general?
If Boucher’s and Goya’s paintings became more sexualized, Courbet erases any subtlety with The Origin of the World. Subtext becomes text, but instead of titillation, Courbet upends expectations in his emphasis on realism – the hair, the curves of the woman’s body, a headless torso. The piece is a study in contrast – provocative in daring us to look at and appreciate her body; celebratory of women as stated in the title; problematic in erasing her identity and only focusing on her genitalia.
The last painting we will examine of the history of the nude is Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Picasso seemingly shatters any notion of sensuality in the work – the angular lines, the flat plane, the use of masks. While Manet still presents a beautiful woman, the women of Picasso’s canvas appear more threatening and powerful. He cuts through art history to present the psychology of both the subject and of the audience as we grapple with the painting. It is no coincidence that Freud’s theories and psychoanalysis had begun to sweep through Europe at the time, challenging the understanding of ourselves and the world.
So how does Tom Wesselmann and this painting fit within the lineage of nude paintings? As a Pop artist, Wesselmann was fascinated with the commercial aspect of society. By applying this focus on consumerism to nude form, he brought to the fore new ideas and new questions about art.
This painting in particular references the classical nudes of art history via Renaissance Old Masters, such as Titian and Velázquez, and Impressionist painters like Manet, in the figure’s pose. There is even a possible reference to Courbet with the painting’s indisputable sexuality.
However, If Wesselmann were only quoting previous artists, this work would not be as powerful. Instead, he provides both understated and clever updates such as juxtaposing the figure with modern objects. He even updates the figure herself for contemporary audiences, one example being the use of bikini tan lines. Like Manet, this is no generic Venus, but a contemporary woman who enjoys and has the leisure to tan. In a subtle way, this reinforces the woman’s body and her nudity.
Wesselmann also pushes the figure towards abstraction, erasing her face and any identifying features. She appears less as an individual and more like commercial advertising. This push to abstraction creates an even bolder connection between the visual and commercial consumption. Thus, we return to the same questions as we went through the history of the nude – what are the power dynamics of viewing this work? For whom is the work made? How do we contend with issues of visual and commercial consumption as applied to nude paintings?
These are not easy questions with easy answers. As all of these paintings have indicated, there is complexity and subversion. Even for one of the original reclining nudes – Sleeping Hermaphroditus, which displays a female presenting body with male sexual organs – the ancient Greeks and Romans understand the interplay among sensuality, humor, subversion. It is the pull between expectation versus reality.
Wesselmann’s art follows this lineage, bringing new vigor via Pop’s obsession with surface – of society, of commercialism, of mainstream pop culture, and of the materiality of an art object. The portraits by Wesselmann walk this tension, transforming figures into pop cultural icons.
Although we could venture to the art of India and other cultures outside of Europe, will trace the lineage of the nude in Western Art as Wesselmann drew mainly from this source.
Statue of the Aphrodite of Knidos, 2nd Century Roman copy, The Art Institute of Chicago
Titian, “Venus of Urbino”, 1538, oil on canvas, Uffizi Gallery
Édouard Manet, “Olympia”, 1863, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay
Pablo Picasso, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”, 1907, oil on canvas, Musem of Modern Art
Francisco Goya,”The Naked Maja”, 1795-1800, oil on canvas, Museo del Prado
Sleeping Hermaphroditos, date unknown, Louvre
- The graphs prepared by Art Market Research show that since 1976, paintings by Wesselmann have increased at a 6.2% annual rate of return, and a 4.5% annual rate of return in the past ten years.
- 1962 Plus 35 Nude Sketch II relates back to Wesselmann’s iconic Great American Nude series of the 1960s and ’70s. Works from that series achieve the highest prices for the artist at auction and are housed in the collections of major museums, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
- The style and vibrancy of this painting clearly shows the influence of Pop Art. Andy Warhol and fellow Pop Art icon Roy Lichtenstein were far more prolific than Wesselmann, meaning that there are far fewer great examples of Wesselmann’s work available for acquisition.
Top Results at Auction
Comparable Paintings Sold at Auction
- Also features a view of Fort Carré d’Antibes, sold at auction 6 years ago
- Same size and has beautiful water, light, and sky
- A very similar painting is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston
- Another view of Fort Carré d’Antibes
- Sold at auction 6 years ago for over $13M
- Has recently been on the private market for over $15M
- About 20% smaller than La Maison du Jardinier
- Sold 9 years ago for $9.2M, exceeding its high estimate of $5-7M
- Now in the permanent collection of the Museum Barberini in Potsdam
Paintings in Museum Collections
The definitive authority on the authenticity of paintings by Van Gogh, the Van Gogh Museum inspected this painting in January 2020 and provided this letter of authenticity. During that inspection, X-ray revealed a second painting under the surface – a portrait of a man.