By Morgan O’Brien
In the late 19th century, American artist Howard Roberts sculpted La Premiere Pose, which featured a first-time female model shyly posing in a chair. This scandalous sculpture is part of a collection of works from the late 19th century-early 20th century that fetishize the idea of the shy, vulnerable woman. This image was especially attractive to men during the late 19th century because this was a time when women were gaining more sexual agency in the public eye. The rise of women devoting their lives to things other than motherhood threatened men’s image of the image of the perfect family1. Other works that feature this idea are Henri Matisse’s Seated Nude, Back Turned, Auguste Rodin’s Possession and The Young Mother.
Men were threatened by the idea that women were gaining more sexual agency in the late 19th century when these works were created. Sharon Hirsch explains how in the late 19th century, there was the increasingly popular movement of women who did not devote their lives to being mothers and housewives. The extravagant, sexy fashions of the courtesans inspired these women. An exaggerated female form, lace, and lingerie were now brought into everyday wear2. Women were taking control of their sexuality, and placing less importance on finding a husband and starting a family. During this time, the image of the shy woman was especially attractive to men, because it displayed a likely faithfulness and devotion. Philosopher David Hume explains in Of Chastity and Modesty that the way the male brain works is that if a woman is not modest, then there is no way to know that the child she bears is truly his own. And if his wife bears a child that is not of his blood, how could he possibly love it and care for it? This way of thinking led to men seeing the independent, 19th century New Woman as unfit to be wives and mothers. This makes way for a new appreciation and ultimate fetishization of shy, modest women.
La Premiere Pose is a 51 inch tall marble sculpture created by Howard Roberts in 1873-1876. Howard Roberts was an American sculptor who lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Around the time of his creation of La Premiere Pose, he was considered to be the most accomplished American sculptor3. He was a direct contemporary to Thomas Eakins as they both studied in Paris under sculptor Augustin-Alexandre Dumont. La Premiere Pose features a young female model in an extravagant chair with drapery. Next to her is a palette with fresh, dripping paint on it, as if she was planning to paint, but submitted to being the model. The woman’s gaze points down, her body folding inwards unconfidently. Her breasts are exposed but her genitals are hidden. Her arm covers her hair, as if trying to hide as much as possible. The title of the work, “the first pose” indicates that it was the model’s first time posing, adding more to the idea that she was captured in a moment of vulnerability. The smooth, white marble finish is a signifier of purity and innocence. The work also references classical roman and Greek sculpture, showing that the artist has an interest and desire to bring back old ways of thinking. The fact that she is portrayed as shy and innocent, but we are still seeing her nude, is why the new “appreciation” for modest women is truly a fetishization. She is nude but her body language gives us the impression that this was not by her choice. Critic William J Clarke remarked about the work, “the sculptor has indicated his own appreciation of the fact that the situation has both a comic and a tragic side…”4 describing this work as comic while also acknowledging that it is tragic shows a lack of care for the model’s well being and disregard of her as a person.
Failure to recognize and treat female models as people is a common trend throughout art history. Susan Waller discusses the historical relationship between artist and model, usually a male artist and a female model. The models were often in a lower socioeconomic class than the artist, and needed the money from the job.5 This gave the male artist an unclear amount of power over the female model, where he is able to abuse his power and get more out of her than she may be comfortable with. Seeing these apprehensively posed models begs the question of how uncomfortable were they?
A work that conveys a similar image of a shy nude woman is Seated Nude, Back Turned by Henri Matisse, created in 1917. In Matisse’s work, the woman is completely turned away from the viewer, and all we see besides her back is her slight profile as she sits pensively, hand to chin. It is as if she is considering turning around, but is too shy, or simply does not want to. The space that the figure occupies looks like it could be a home, which leads us to believe that this could either be her private space that she has let us into, or the artist’s home where she does not feel entirely comfortable. Either way, this idea of a vulnerable, timid, but still nude woman is desirable to men at this time. It gives the impression that it may not have been their choice to be nude, and were pressured to be nude by a male artist. She may be available for sex, but not so much by her own choice.
Young Mother in the Grotto by Auguste Rodin was created in 1885, around the same time as La Premiere Pose. It is a plaster, 36cm by 28cm sculpture that depicts a nude woman and small child in a cave-like setting. As the title states, the woman is a young mother. Her body is turned away from the viewer and faces the child directly. Her hand points to her heart and she makes eye contact with the child. She is completely engaged in the child, seemingly unaware of any onlooker at all. This image does not appear sexualized upon first glance, but does romanticize the idea of young motherhood. This woman gives off the impression that she is not interested in any men other than her young child and likely the child’s father. The fact that she is nude is also for the male viewer’s pleasure, and indicates that she is sexually available.
In 1895-1897 Auguste Rodin created his work Possession, which shows a male and female figure embracing so tightly that their bodies appear to be merged. The male figure has a tight hold on the female figure, as the female figure appears to be holding onto the man for her life. It appears that the male phallus penetrates through the woman’s back. There is a clear dependency in the woman’s pose, as if she is expressing how she cannot live without the man. The man, who is much taller and larger than the woman, looks down to her as he penetrates her. While this work does not feature an outwardly shy woman like the other works, it does feature what could be a male’s ideal relationship of this time period–a woman who will give herself entirely to a man and become his possession.
La Premiere Pose is a troubling work that embodies the sexualization of shy women during the late 19th century. This work, accompanied by Seated Nude, Back Turned, Young Mother in the Grotto, and Possession, displays an idealized, vulnerable female form. There is a degree of shyness in their body language that indicates a possible faithfulness to men who were threatened by the increase of sexually independent women. A troubling realization is that the fact that the women are in a vulnerable state is what makes them sexually appealing to men. They are not sexualizing themselves or taking control of their sexuality as many women of the late 19th century did. They are instead being sexualized against their will, which is ultimately the appeal to men.
- Hirsh, Sharon L. Symbolism and Modern Urban Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
- Steele, Valerie. “Femme Fatale: Fashion and Visual Culture in Fin-de-siècle Paris.” Fashion Theory 8, no. 3 (2004): 315-28. doi:10.2752/136270404778051663.
- Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art (New York: Harper et Row, 1982).
- William J Clark, James L. Claghorn, and William Spohn. Baker, Exhibition of Prints (Claghorn Collection) under the Auspices of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Critical Notices by William J. Clark, Reprinted from “The Evening Telegraph” of Philadelphia. With the Opening Address Delivered by W.S. Baker (Philadelphia: Rue & Jones, printers, 1875).
- Susan Waller, “Rustic Poseurs: Peasant Models In The Practice Of Jean-François Millet And Jules Breton,” Art History 31, no. 2 (2008): pp. 187-210, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8365.2008.00605.x.
Hirsh, Sharon L. Symbolism and Modern Urban Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
Hume, David.Theory of Politics. Containing A Treatise of Human Nature, Book III, Parts I and II, and Thirteen of the Essays, Moral, Political and Literary. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1953.
Steele, Valerie. “Femme Fatale: Fashion and Visual Culture in Fin-de-siècle Paris.” Fashion Theory 8, no. 3 (2004): 315-28. doi:10.2752/136270404778051663.
Waller, Susan. “Rustic Poseurs: Peasant Models In The Practice Of Jean-François Millet And Jules Breton.” Art History 31, no. 2 (2008): 187–210. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8365.2008.00605.x.
Baigell, Matthew. Dictionary of American Art. New York: Harper et Row, 1982.
Clark, William J, James L. Claghorn, and William Spohn. Baker. Exhibition of Prints (Claghorn Collection) under the Auspices of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Critical Notices by William J. Clark, Reprinted from “The Evening Telegraph” of Philadelphia. With the Opening Address Delivered by W.S. Baker. Philadelphia: Rue & Jones, printers, 1875.