This Figure Painting Might Seem Peculiar


Figure in the Landscape
Watercolor on Masa Paper, 7.5×10.5″

This image of a seated woman was painted indoors in the studio. Her surroundings are invented but take inspiration from the landscape here, where I live in Wisconsin. Anyone living in the upper Midwest near the Great Lakes will find this landscape depiction vaguely familiar. This is the landscape I know best so inventing this environment was not difficult for me. The Lake, by which I mean Lake Michigan, has been ever present in my life. I never lived on its shore but it has had a life long influence, none the less. We navigated the city (Chicago) by it. If the Lake was to my right, I was heading north; to the left I was heading south. If the lake was to my back I was going west. East meant the lake was in front of me. There was no east side. The east side was the Lake.

Long before I came here to live, I made an annual trip this way to paint. I spent ten days every spring in a cottage right on the beach. It seemed I could roll out of bed and land on the sand. The Lake was even more present on these occasions. Its color and weather more spectacularly variable.

As for this figure sitting nude in the landscape, it’s a classic setting. Artists have painted nudes in the landscape for centuries. And by nudes, I mean both male and female nudes. We are so accustomed to women appearing nude in the presence of clothed men the idea of male nudes seems peculiar. Cezanne painted two paintings of nudes in the landscape entitled Great Bathers; one of male bathers and one of female bathers. Renoir painted female bathers. This goes all the way back to classical Greece but in classical Greece only males figures appeared nude. Female figures were always clothed until the Helenic period.

The great French, nineteenth century history paintings had both male and female nudes, but about mid century, the male nude began to go out of favor.  Nude male depictions were suddenly effeminate. Such sculptures as the Apollo Belvidere, which had been one the great works of Antiquity, was criticized for a lack of manliness. Also, male nudes were considered too much for the delicate natures of women. They might faint dead away in the presence of the “whole male”! It was the era of fig leaves and strategically placed drapery.

Then we have to deal with the paradox of the United States’ universal obsession with sex while decrying any nudity as sexual. Yet, there is an acceptance of a ubiquitous sexualization of nearly everything.

Calm yourself dear reader, art historically, this little figure is nothing out of the ordinary.


June 9, 2016