Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Sculpting the Modern Muse: Auguste Clesinger's Femme Piquee Par Un Serpent

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Sculpting the Modern Muse: Auguste Clesinger's Femme Piquee Par Un Serpent

Article excerpt

It is commonly observed that the mid-nineteenth century marks a decisive turning point in the representation of the female nude in French painting. The idealized Venus of the neoclassical tradition that had defined the genre throughout the first hall of the century was gradually supplanted by modern types engaged in everyday activities and presented with an attention to realistic detail. Avant-garde painters from Courbet to Manet and Degas chose the representation of the female nude as the primary battlefield for their challenge to the accepted standards of the Academy. Their scenes of women bathing and undressing, applying makeup or fixing a garter, exploit established cliches of femininity, but are rendered in an unconventional formal language that often precludes the voyeurism associated with standard nudes of the period. By shifting attention away from the female body as an object of erotic interest and onto painterly concerns of facture and composition, these painters made way for the abstraction of twentieth-century art. (1)

While much attention has been devoted in recent years to demonstrating the centrality of the female nude in the development of French modernist painting, less has been said about the fact that sculptors of the same period were also struggling to free themselves from the constraints of academicism, and that they too chose the female nude as a principal means of expressing the modern potential of their medium. One of the earliest sculptors to experiment radically with the parameters of the genre was Auguste Clesinger (1814-1883), who sparked heated controversy in 1847 with his reclining nude, Femme piquee par un serpent (figs. 18, 30), a work that would become the crowning success of his career. Carved in marble, the statue depicts a woman stretched out on a "bed" of roses in a pose of voluptuous self-abandonment, naked but for a scant covering of drapery loosely wrapped around her right leg. The figure's left leg extends beyond the area of the pedestal base, as if to call special attention to the small bronze serpent that originally encircled the ankle, no doubt placed there to give the impression that the Femme in question was Eve or Cleopatra, both popular allegorical pretexts for nude female sculpture throughout the century. (2) Though the presence of the serpent managed to appease the sensibilities of a conservative jury (by all accounts its sole purpose, for it was removed immediately following the Salon (3)), it was obvious to everyone else that the true subject pertained to the tangible pleasures of a living woman rather than to any dramatic incident from ancient history or myth. Indeed, viewers were well aware that the model who had served for this piece was the celebrated demimondaine, Madame Sabatier--a fact Clesinger did little to hide, and even advertised.

At the time of its unveiling, Femme piquee was widely hailed as a masterpiece of contemporary art, one of the first in its medium that broke free of traditional subjects and styles to embrace an unabashed naturalism. (4) But even the most favorable reviewers were shocked and perplexed by the modernity of the subject matter and rendering, describing the pose as "difficult" or "strange," and the overall effect as "unsettlingi In subsequent appraisals of Clesinger's art, however, these more disconcerting and innovative aspects of the sculpture have been overshadowed by a preoccupation with the eroticism of the figure. The tacit assumption is that Femmepiquee, like so many other high-art nudes of the nineteenth century, uses the genre primarily as an excuse for the titillating display of the female body. (5) Though there is no doubt that Femme piquee is sexually provocative, to dismiss it on these grounds is to ignore the more serious representational concerns it raises. This paper aims to draw attention to these concerns with an eye to reassessing the importance of Femme piquee as a key work in the evolution of French modernist sculpture. …

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