The Nude in French Art and Culture, 1870-1910 (review)
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Nineteenth Century French Studies 32.3 & 4 (2004) 361-362



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Dawkins, Heather. The Nude in French Art and Culture, 1870-1910. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. Pp. xii + 231 . ISBN 0-521-80755-7

This readable study is most original in its choice of vantage points from which to assess the artistic nude at the fin de siècle, a topic that has received much attention from feminist and cultural historians over the last several years. Instead of focusing for the most part on paintings of the nude or their artists, the education of the artist, or the social reception of canonical or pompier works, Dawkins brings us a refreshing new look at spectatorship of the nude in France from four perspectives: that of censorship laws; that of the female model; that of women artists; and that of female salon critics. The four-part approach is a fascinating way to reassess a much debated topic.

That being said, there are problems with the organization and choice of material that mar an otherwise insightful study. The first chapter, on decency laws in the later nineteenth century, is the most lengthy and the best. Dawkins' desire to study censorship as "a form of spectatorship more than as an apparatus of repression" (8) is an original turning of the tables. The discussion of differences in censorship laws concerning images in reviews and those incorporated into texts proper is an important contribution to the complex history of censorship as spectatorship. The chapter will be difficult to follow at times, however, for the scholar not already well versed in the area. More background material concerning the rise of photography and the subsequent need for and application of decency laws concerning print material would be helpful. Mention of the flourishing of related photography publications that offered photographic académies to the public (Le Nu Esthétique, L'Etude Académique, Le Modèle Photographique) would also round out the pres-entation.

Chapter 2, on the female model, has an extremely narrow focus. Dawkins chooses to study in depth (with citations that are at times unnecessarily lengthy) a journal piece that appeared in Le Mercure de France and was ostensibly written by a female model for Degas or by someone who knew her. In what Dawkins repeatedly and erroneously refers to as a "memoir," the unknown author Alice Michel narrates in the third person modeling sessions between Degas and an unknown model called Pauline. To label these brief pages "model memoirs" and to cite them as an example of the model taking up an agency typically reserved for the artist is a great stretch. These pages deliver, rather, anecdotes concerning posing in Degas's studio that were [End Page 361] typical of countless ones told by male artists or writers at the time: the studio is cold and unkempt, the artist is vulgar, the model is tired and abused, and her tentative comments on art are ignored. Pauline gives no narrative of her upbringing, how she came into modeling, what her life outside of the studio is like - all that would count as memoirs. To propose that "The memoir's existence restores what was suppressed in the studio: the model's subjectivity and voice" (108) is to draw risky conclusions from a series of brief dialogues penned by an unknown author who perhaps invented all the material (and perhaps was a man).

Chapter 3 addresses women artists of the nude, especially Marie Bashkirtseff, Berthe Morisot, and Mary Cassatt. Since women did not typically have the education or opportunity to paint or draw after the nude, there is not much to offer here, although Dawkins draws some important connections. The final chapter, on women journalists and critics of the nude, focuses on Marie (Marc) de Montifaud, who wrote salon reviews and fiction. It is important to attend to this neglected figure, but the material on the nude itself is slight and the use of lengthy quotes is at times distracting. The short stories by Montifaud that present scenes of nakedness are presented by Dawkins as original examples...


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