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Naked or Nude?

How many artfully-draped centaurs, bacchantes, and nymphs does it take to make a dirty magazine? Only one early 20th-century periodical has the answer: The Aesthetic Nude (Le Nu Esthétique), an amazing period piece culled from the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries for the Department of Prints and Drawings’s Undressed: The Fashion of Privacy.


Illustrated entirely with unclothed models enacting quasi-mythological imagery, the covers alone range from a rapturous Leda and the Swan to a centaur’s semi-consensual abduction of a nymph. Inside each issue appear even more views of studio models in increasingly far-fetched poses, all of which were ostensibly meant to supplant the live model in studio practice.


It’s not clear that anyone ever copied these compositions in paint, but the effort that went into cutting out the photos in lively shapes, and the publication’s run of several years (c. 1902-06), suggests a market existed for it!


These ‘aesthetic nudes’ beg the question of what constituted nudity, as opposed to nakedness in the late 19th and early 20th century. Was it simply the academic and mythological guise that made these images acceptable, even collectible?

In Undressed’s adults-only Prostitution gallery (127A), less is definitely more. In fact prices increased inversely to the amount of clothing removed by skilled Parisian courtesans in the 19th century! While those often-raucous images must be experienced in person, the nearby gallery with the Aesthetic Nude (127B) focuses on the purer nude. Full of academic studies of (mainly) male models, this space offers a curious contrast to the scores of women caught in the act of undressing elsewhere in the exhibition. Drawing from the nude was a necessary step in artist training, for only after apprentices had mastered copying from sculpture casts and engravings could they attempt the live model. The emphasis remains on classical form; indeed, these figures are so detached from the context of clothing, the final result is hardly provocative. Even discounting the novelty of photography, these ‘aesthetic nudes,’ however, are something else entirely.

Undressed:  The Fashion of Privacy is an exhibition of works on paper (open through September 29 in the Prints and Drawings Galleries) complementing the Art Institute’s summer extravaganza, Impressionism, Fashion, & ModernityUndressed strips the veneer of fashionable public clothing and shows European and American women and some men from the 18th into the early 20th century anywhere from a state of nature to fashionably deshabillé.

Image Credit: Selections from Émile Bayard, Le nu esthétique: l'homme, la femme, l'enfant,  (The aesthetic nude:  man, woman, child), no. 36 (September 12, 1905).  Ryerson and Burnham Libraries.