SS: While the current crop of misbehaving Hollywood actresses seem to believe they invented the art of revealing too much, nude pictures of celebrity women are hardly new. There’s a 1570 portrait by Clouet of Diane de Poitiers, the favorite of the French King Henry II, that shows her quite unabashedly naked (and in a draped tub, too.)
My historical novels are set in 17th century England, during the reign of Charles II. For the first time women were allowed on the English stage, and those actresses were also quick to exploit their celebrity by having themselves painted with bared breasts, or even entirely nude — something no respectable lady would dream of doing. Even among the royal mistresses, there was a hierarchy of how much was revealed. If you’d moved from the stage to the palace (like Nell Gwyn or Moll Davis), then you could pretty much display all your wares in your portraits. But if you were a lady by birth (like the Countess of Castlemaine, my heroine in Royal Harlot, shown over there on the right as some sort of quasi-goddess), you were painted fully covered, but without any undergarments beneath that thin layer of silk and with breasts threatening to tumble out, so that very little was left to the imagination.
Here’s a painting by Sir Peter Lely of Nell Gwyn as Venus. She was an actress, and common-born mistress to Charles II, which gave her two excuses to be shown nude. Not only did the king hang this painting in his dressing chamber where the queen unhappily saw it, but Nell invited a small crowd of male friends to drop in to the artist’s studio while she was posing. A popular girl, Nell. I can think of other royal mistresses painted in various degrees of undress as well as ladies coyly playing at being goddesses in revealing drapery, but I can’t think of any men, gentlemen or rogues, who had their portraits done sans clothes. Can anyone else?
MJP: Not that I can think of. But in that era, men were pretty much power and money objects, not sex objects. Portraits would show their wealth, not their probably flabby abs.
JO:I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a couple of portraits done in classical robes, probably late 18th century, but I can’t find any now. Anyone know any?
SS: I did think of a prominent male who liked being naked, and he sure wasn’t a royal mistress. Supposedly American founding father Benjamin Franklin was a great believer in "air baths": each morning upon rising, he would remove all his clothes and sit in the middle of his bedchamber for an hour with as much fresh air as he could tolerate, depending on the season. No visual on that, please! *g*
Jo: Definitely not. There are plenty of almost naked Renaissance men, of course, especially representing gods. Venus and Adonis? This one is by Goltzius, 1614. Not quite naked, but the sort of thing an upper class lady could see on the walls of her family’s home.
But real people, ever noticed how few young hunks had their portraits painted? When they were older, they weren’t about to expose their wrinkly flesh and flab, were they?
I have a late 18th century, I think, French print of swimmers where the men are wearing shorts that look painted on over nakedness. Actually, I have references to men bathing naked in Brighton, which is why the male beach was off limits, and also why telescopes were popular with the ladies. I think they stopped it by the Regency period, but at least one man did it anyway in protest.
As I understand it, men generally swam naked.
PR: My thoughts exactly. It’s not as if historically men watched their waists, and outside of the few young bucks at Gentleman Jackson’s, there wasn’t much in the way of gyms. So that big shirt hid a multitude of sins but could quickly drown an inexperienced swimmer.
Despite culture, people are people. If it was hot, I assume they’d strip down in privacy unless they wanted to hide their flaws from their partners or—mostly in the case of women, I suspect, but not entirely—unless they were excessively modest. It’s not nakedness but modesty and how one feels about one’s body that predicts the cultural norm. If one is surrounded by servants, a modest tent of cloth of some type might be required by an upper class woman, an older woman, or one raised to be modest about her body. A woman in the habit of following sheep into the river to shear them is not likely to be as modest as a woman who has never allowed anyone to see her in anything less than silk or lace.
And just think about male hang ups! Ones that think they’re excessively well-endowed are probably much more likely to jump naked into the river on a hot summer day and encourage others to do the same. But that "hot summer day" bit precludes most of England, most of the time, so the temptation simply wouldn’t be there often.
Personally, considering how many times a day the upper classes changed clothes, I’d think they’d get excessively tired of it after a while. And if bathing wasn’t a convenient option, why bother stripping? I think we’d have to investigate sexual attitudes, preferences, and knowledge in historical periods just to see if they even bothered with much foreplay. Really, we’ve been applying our own modern concept of sex to our historicals, but the truth is probably far cruder in normal cases outside the Don Juan types.
SS: Ah, I did think of another! There’s a larger-than-lifesize statue of George Washington by Horatio Greenough in the Smithsonian that shows the first president bare-chested and classically heroic (if more than a little silly.)
Jo: That need to put great men in a classical context could lead to peculiarities, couldn’t it? *G* I think that having servants would take some of the edge off a fixation on modesty per se. I mean, would a woman really go behind a screen rather than change her shift in front of one or two maids? Very few, I’d guess.
And as well as paintings, they were surrounded by all those classical statues. I used that element in my first book, Lord Wraybourne’s Betrothed, where Jane had been raised quietly and modestly in a strictly Christian home. Her first look at a classical statue was quite a shock.
This all depends on the period, of course. We’ve always got to be very careful not to impose Victorianisms onto the Regency. We have so much more primary material from that era. It did take a very weird turn.
Much of the Regency was closer to the Georgian than the Victorian, especially in the upper class.
SS: You’re totally right, Loretta. Modern readers often forget that Heyer is writing about the past from her time period, and her pov is inevitably filtered through it — the curse of every writer writing about a time other than her own. Jane Austen, writing during and about her own time, is far less squeamish.
MJP: As for nakedish males in paintings–SK, can you think of any? Maybe among the Pre-Raphaelites? As an example of the opposite, I’m thinking of a well known late-19th century painting (I think) that shows a mixed group picnicking by a pond, and the men are in full Edwardian gear and the women are naked, IIRC. Most men–and most male painters–like looking at and painting nekkidy females.
SS: I’m not sure if this was meant to be an art history exam-question or not, but I’ll bite. The painting you mean must be "Dejeuner sur l’herbe" by Manet, and in fact it did cause a huge scandal when it was first shown. One of the men was Manet’s brother, another artist, and the woman was Manet’s favorite model, so as I recall this was supposed to be a picnic-break in the middle of painting. So at least she has a reason for being naked — though of course there are few careers further beyond the respectable pale than being an artist’s model.
MJP: Ah, that’s the one! Thank you. I figured one of the art historians would know it. But I’m not buying that she had a reason to be naked other than the fact that’s what the artist wanted.
SS: Nor do I. The artists are male and the patrons are male, so of course there are going to be many more naked women than naked men. ::sigh::
MJP: Hmm, interesting. I went to Google to see a larger image of the painting, and I see that the woman in the background is in a shift, albeit more or less transparent. Perhaps that supports the theory that even when swimming or bathing, women were usually covered. Looking at the picture, I can’t help thinking that, depending on the weather, either the women are going to be cold or the men are going to feel hot with all those clothes on….
SS: OK, Regency-writers, I’ll ask your opinion on a notorious naked vs. clothed question. What about the Regency women who supposedly dowsed their muslin gowns with water to make them transparent to the point of nudity? True, or only historical gossip?
JO: Exaggeration, at least. Like many fashion extremes, one person does it, and later people think everyone did. We only have to look at fashion magazines today to see that it’s not exactly representing normal dress.
LC: From ENGLISHWOMEN’S CLOTHING IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY “When the first engravings of the Grecian costume–as nudity was called–were brought to England, they shocked every modest woman; and it was not thought proper to look at them in the presence of gentlemen.” They do not identify the quotation source, saying only that it was written retrospectively in 1818.
The Cunningtons do make the point elsewhere that some hysterical references to shocking fashions are not reliable–shocked people can exaggerate–and I do suspect the damped muslins is an urban myth, though maybe one or two "fast women" or harlots did it. Also, they and other costume experts point out that the Grecian or “classical” style of clothing (that we consider Regency style) certainly did look like nudity compared to the dress of previous decades. Here’s an illustrative print.
PR: The wenches will get down and dirty–or squeaky clean–on Friday, the final part of our naked dialogue. But I can’t resist Loretta’s comment above–shocked people can exaggerate. Boy, can they ever! They say "damn" in GWTW! They write sex scenes in romances! What other "shocking" references can you think of?