Reclining Nudes in Post-Impressionist Art

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  • 0:01 Post-Impressionism
  • 1:15 Reclining Nudes in Art History
  • 2:40 Post-Impressionists…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the way that Post-Impressionist painters used a common subject to introduce new ideas about art. We will also explore the history of the reclining nudes. A short quiz will follow for you to test your knowledge. .

Post-Impressionism

After the fall of Rome, the world was cast into the medieval era. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world emerged from the Cold War. After the fall of Impressionism, art also had a chance to enter into a new world. Impressionism was a major moment in the foundation of modern art, in which the painters stopped focusing on the world as we saw it and started focusing on the world as we experienced it. They also helped develop a new mindset, where the painter tried to make the viewer aware of the canvas as much as the subject of the painting.

So, Impressionism was a big deal, but it could not remain the most popular style of art forever. By the end of the 19th century, and into the early 20th century, a whole collection of movements that pushed the Impressionist ideas about art emerged. Collectively, these are the Post-Impressionist painters. Post-Impressionists took these new ideas about art and pushed them even further, focusing on the experiences of life and the relationship between the painter, canvas, and viewer. One of the ways that the Post-Impressionists quickly discovered they could critique the history of art was by using traditional subjects in an entirely new way. Makes sense right? Well, one of their favorite subjects to play with was the figure of the reclining nude.

Reclining Nudes in Art History

Okay, a brief bit of background here. In painting, the subject of a nude female reclining on a couch or bed was one of the traditionally accepted subjects. It was a way for the artist to study the human form and demonstrate an ability to communicate subtle aspects of a person's personality, status, or life through a respected form of portraiture. Plus, painting reclining nudes showed that the artist appreciated traditional subjects and had studied the works of historic masters.

By the mid-19th century, some artists were already beginning to use this traditional subject as a way to critique the world of high art. Édouard Manet completely shocked the world when he presented Olympia, which was created in 1863. Rather than the demure nude, this image depicts a well-known prostitute who is defiantly staring out at the viewer without an ounce of shame. Olympia forces the viewer of the painting to think of themselves as a viewer.

Olympia by Edouard Manet

When you look at a landscape painting, is it looking back at you? Does it seem aware of you? No, and most nude figures did not either. But Olympia does, and suddenly the relationship between painting and viewer has changed. Add to this the somewhat flattened nature of Manet's painting, and you've got a really unique piece of art that challenges the conventions of the past, using a traditional subject.

Post-Impressionists and Reclining Nudes

That idea of the relationship between the viewer and the painting carried through Impressionism and into Post-Impressionism. Paul Cézanne was one of the early Post-Impressionists to take another shot at this subject in his 1874 painting that was so influenced by Manet that he called it A Modern Olympia. It's pretty much the same scene - a nude reclining figure with a black servant. But it's also very different, and in more than just the technique. Rather than imply the presence of the viewer, Cézanne just added the viewer into the painting! There - in the black coat gazing at Olympia - is the viewer. So now, we are viewing the viewer who is viewing Olympia as she views the viewer. See how complicated modern art can get?

A Modern Olympia
Painting: A Modern Olympia

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