Shirtlessness and more: Bouguereau and Sargent

(This posting has reproductions of art works in which penises and female breasts are exposed. My belief is that these works — now on public display in mainstream art museums — fall under the Fine Art Exemption to the ban on such images on WordPress, Facebook, Google+, and elsewhere.)

A follow-up to yesterday’s posting “Annals of shirtlessness: French neo-Classicism”, whose centerpiece was Bouguereau’s Dante and Virgil, featuring two shirtless, in fact naked, men in combat. The painter was heaviy focused on the female form, so his treatment of the male nude is of some interest. On Facebook, Corry Wyngaarden then supplied another Bouguereau example:

(#1) Bouguereau, The Remorse of Orestes (1862)

(with drapery cunningly concealing the man’s genitals, making the painting acceptable for exhibition at the Paris Salon; in intent, this is not a cock tease, but a modest cover-up). The Bouguereau Orestes led me immediately to John Singer Sargent’s Orestes Pursued by the Furies (1921). And from there to Sargent‘s treatment of male nudes, in a set of drawings and paintings kept secret during the painter’s lifetime — sexually explicit, homoerotic works.

The Sargent Orestes:


The background story, from Wikipedia:

Orestes Pursued by the Furies is an event from Greek mythology that is a recurring theme in art depicting Orestes.

In the Iliad, the king of Argos, Agamemnon, sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to the Gods to assure good sailing weather to Troy.

In Agamemnon, the first play of Aeschylus’s Oresteia trilogy, Agamemnon is murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus as revenge for sacrificing Iphigenia. In The Libation Bearers, the second play of the Orestia, Agamemnon’s son Orestes returns home to take revenge on his mother for murdering his father.

Orestes ultimately does murder his mother, and afterward is tormented by The Furies, beings who personify the anger of the dead.

And on Sargent, from Wikipedia:

John Singer Sargent (January 12, 1856 – April 14, 1925) was an American artist, considered the “leading portrait painter of his generation” for his evocations of Edwardian era luxury. During his career, he created roughly 900 oil paintings and more than 2,000 watercolors, as well as countless sketches and charcoal drawings. His oeuvre documents worldwide travel, from Venice to the Tyrol, Corfu, the Middle East, Montana, Maine, and Florida.

… Sargent was a lifelong bachelor with a wide circle of friends. Biographers once portrayed him as staid and reticent. However recent scholarship has suggested that he was a private, complex and passionate man with a homosexual identity that shaped his art. This view is based on his friends and associations; the overall alluring remoteness of his portraits; the way his works challenge 19th-century notions of gender difference; his erotic and previously ignored male nudes; and some sensitive and erotic male portraits, including those of Thomas E. McKeller, Bartholomy Maganosco, Olimpio Fusco, and that of the handsome aristocratic artist Albert de Belleroche, which hung in his Chelsea dining room. Sargent had a long and intense romantic friendship with Belleroche, whom he met in 1882, and who later went on to marry: a surviving drawing hints that Sargent may have used him as a model for Madame X.

It has been suggested that Sargent’s reputation in the 1890s as “the painter of the Jews” may have been due to his empathy with, and complicit enjoyment of their mutual social otherness. One such client, Betty Wertheimer, wrote that when in Venice Sargent “was only interested in the Venetian gondoliers”. The painter Jacques-Émile Blanche, who was one of his early sitters, said after Sargent’s death that his sex life “was notorious in Paris, and in Venice, positively scandalous. He was a frenzied bugger.”

[Linguistic note. Bugger here is (or was) a term of abuse for the insertive partner in anal intercourse (the buggerer); the counterpart term for a male receptive partner in anal intercourse (the buggeree) is (or was) sodomite.]

More on Sargent’s secret art works, from “The secret life of John Singer Sargent” by Colm Tóibín in the Telegraph on 2/15/15:

The key to these works, and indeed to aspects both apparent and hidden in Sargent’s personality as an artist, was offered in a book published in 2000 by Trevor Fairbrother, one of the best writers on Sargent who has also contributed to the National Portrait Gallery catalogue. The book is called John Singer Sargent: The Sensualist. It includes reproductions of drawings of naked men that Sargent never exhibited in his lifetime but kept together in an album. The drawings were donated by Sargent’s family to the Fogg Museum at Harvard, but not much noticed until Fairbrother wrote an article about them in 1981.

[These works are collected in John Esten’s John Singer Sargent: The Male Nudes (1999).]

They really are eye-openers, sexually explicit and filled with open homoerotic desire. “Strapping men,” as Fairbrother writes, “assume showy or exultant poses.” He later writes: “These charcoal drawings are just as vivid and individual as [Sargent’s] better-known society portraits… The album’s male images are variously immediate, lush, intimate, heroic and tender.” These drawings are as openly erotic as Sargent’s Nude Study of Thomas E McKeller, painted between 1917 and 1920. (Sargent noticed McKeller as an elevator operator in a hotel.) This painting was, like the drawings of naked men, not exhibited in Sargent’s lifetime. It was first reproduced in a book in 1955, but did not become widely known until it was bought by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1986.

The painting of McKeller:


More details on the background of this painting, from the museworthy blog on 12/14/09, in “Thomas E. McKeller – Male Muse”:

few artists can resist an inspiring subject, even if it deviates from their usual genre. John Singer Sargent was no exception. We all know that a muse can happen upon an artist at anytime, anywhere. A bar, a street corner, a party. In Sargent’s case, the unexpected encounter occurred in 1916, in an elevator at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston.

The striking, muscular young man was Thomas E. McKeller, an African-American bellhop at the hotel. At first sight, Sargent was instantly enthralled by McKeller’s strong physique and facial features. Soon, the young bellhop was posing for the artist, and a large scale oil painting, Thomas E. McKeller Nude Study was produced

Sargent’s male nudes display both foci of gay male desire, the penis and the buttocks, sometimes separately and sometimes together.

The penis, as in #3 and in this wonderful drawing:

(#4) Male Reclining on a Stairway, drawing c.1890-1915 (in the Fogg Museum, Harvard Univ.)

Both together, as here (with a sly peek at the tip of the model’s penis):

(#5) Study of the male silhouette, drawing 1920 (in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts)

(This might be McKeller, but in any case the figure is very close to the one that is the basis for the Orestes figure in #2.)

And just the buttocks, as here:

(#6) Standing Male Figure, drawing ca. 1890? (in the Philadelphia Museum of Art)

As you can see from these samples, Sargent was seriously into muscular thighs and calves.

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