In the nineteenth century respectability dictated that painted nudes were presented as goddesses or characters from ancient history. In France, Degas and Renoir broke this tradition by showing women washing in everyday surroundings. In Britain, it was Sickert who took up their example and pioneered a new way of painting naturalistic nudes. His pictures were more openly sexual in character. The domestic environment justified the model’s nudity and located it firmly in the modern world. Such overt treatment of sexuality shared a new frankness in discussing sex that was emerging in progressive Edwardian circles, particularly around issues of family planning and prevention of sexual diseases.
Sickert’s domestic nudes sprawl on cheap iron beds in grimy rooms, with just enough sallow north London light filtering in to emphasise their flesh. Many contemporaries assumed these were pictures of prostitutes. Nudes on a bed were daring, and the link between nakedness and sex would have been shocking in Edwardian society. Sickert’s explorations and commitment to the naturalistic nude prompted Gore and Gilman to follow his example. But other members of the Camden Town Group resisted the subject, and it is one entirely absent from their work.