The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Walter Richard Sickert, ‘The naked and the Nude’

The New Age, 21 July 1910, pp.276–7.

The naked and the Nude.
By Walter Sickert.
Charles Keene once said to me, and, if he said it to me he must have said it to others, that he thought the fault of most modern art teaching was the excess of drawing and painting from the nude.
I pass by, without dwelling on it, the art school modification of the nude which sometimes encloses the two main articulations of the body, the source and centre of the balance of the figure, in a bag, from motives of propriety. So that when I speak of the nude I must not be understood to mean a man in bathing-drawers. Imagine Mantegna’s Hercules and Antæus both in bathing-drawers!
What Charles Keene meant was clear to me at the time, both from other conversations I had with him on these subjects, and from the incessant confirmation I had then received, and continue now to receive, from my daily experience as a teacher and a draughtsman. The nude has taken on with time some of the qualities of an examination subject, with time a series of crammers, not all intelligent, have overlaid the subject with receipts, short-cuts and panaceas. An inconsistent and prurient puritanism has succeeded in evolving an ideal which it seeks to dignify by calling it the Nude, with a capital “n,” and placing it in opposition to the naked. An interdict to representations of the naked figure, such as was in force in certain Catholic countries in the middle ages is worthy of respect, and is consistent. The modern flood of representations of the vacuous images dignified by the name of the Nude, represents an intellectual and artistic bankruptcy that cannot but be considered degrading, even by those who do not believe the treatment of the naked human figure reprehensible on moral or religious grounds. Will any clear-headed person maintain that the whole production and multiplication of the nudes with which the exhibitions in [end of p.276] Europe are flooded, culminating in the publication and export of such catalogues as “Le nu au Salon,” owe their stimulus to purely artistic grounds? Does not every petty dealer convicted of the sale of photographs of the naked put up a plea that they are necessary for the use of artists? Has anyone ever heard of an artist who had the slightest use for such things?
The nude is even becoming fashionable. I hear that the latest thrill discovered by enterprising dilettantes is to collect little bevies of the supergoose, de la haute, to draw from “the life.” Magical phrase! I would wager that the major part of these enthusiasts could not put on paper a respectable drawing of a boot-jack or a gingerbeer-bottle, both of which at least keep still.
I had been wondering for years to what it would be possible to compare the obscene monster that has been evolved for public exhibition under the name of the Nude, and regularised as such with a certain sanctimonious unctuousness by the press. To the human form it bears just enough resemblance to make it impious as well as ridiculous. I was sitting one night, sadly, in one of the two-house-a-night “Empires” in a distant suburb, when a “living picture” act was put on the stage. “Diana,” “The Three Graces,” we have all seen and smiled at the naïveté of these doubly edited and anodyne incitements to the worship of beauty, and to the culture of the masses. “The Wave” is an unvarying item. Clad in pink tricot from the neck downwards, not only as to her five-toed feet, but to the tips of her pointed stays and the tips of her ten fingers (tricot does not wash as easily as flesh, and costs more to wash), a somewhat stiff little packet, like a second-hand lay figure of the cheapest make, floats, not without a strand of gauze, on the crest of the property billow. The only thing human is the pretty little face, fixed in a discreet and deprecating smile. A friend who was with me said, “There you have it. There is the academic nude. There is the simplified nude.” The audience, nourished for generations on the Academy and Chantrey bequest nudes, responded with enthusiasm, convinced that here was Art without what the papers call “vulgarity.” The Puritan and the artist may well join hands and cry, both equally shocked, “If this is the nude, for heaven’s sake give us the draped, and let’s say no more about it.”
To return to the studio and the students. I maintain that, owing to the inertia of routine, the nude is too exclusively the subject of study in art schools. Still-life and the antique, intelligently taught, can be made interesting enough for all the training a student requires until he has grasped the principles of drawing, and the underlying philosophy of the very abstract and complex union of judgment and will that constitutes drawing from nature. And then, when he knows, as Whistler used to say, which end of the brush to put in his mouth, the human figure, the proper study of mankind in the studio as in the library, awaits him. It is then that I would suggest that he should work at least twice from the draped model for every once from the nude, and for the following reasons.
The nude having, as I said, become the almost exclusive pass-subject, the standard and criterion of official draughtsmanship, has become overlaid with cribs and glozes. That the student may not sink, the subject is encased in cork jackets and bladders, that he may not fall, there are crutches for the study of the nude. On the head of the nude is what the Germans call a Fall-hut, a baby’s tumbling-cap, and the feet of the nude are girt around with a go-cart. The cyclists’ touring club of art have riddled the nude with triangles and notices of danger, with scorings and soundings and finger-posts, and elevations, to such an extent that fresh observation by the student is very difficult. I speak from experience, and my greatest difficulties as a teacher have always been with students whose minds were so entirely crammed with this abracadabra of precautions, that they had lost the faculty of tracing freely and naïvely on paper the gentle lines they saw in nature before them.
When we wish to test the knowledge of Latin of a student we give him a passage of “unseen,” and not a chapter of the Gallic war. The problem in teaching drawing is to present the nude sufficiently varied by the draped, for it to retain its freshness of impression for the student. There are many artifices that a draughtsman may use to get away from the obsession of the cliché, to keep out of the old ruts of expression, and find fresh words and living thoughts for truths that are ever young. We remember how Mantegna, in his Dead Christ at the Brera, found inspiration in the unusual aspects of foreshortening, how Degas has incessantly chosen to draw figures from unaccustomed points of view. We must try so to pose, so to light, and so to “cut” the nude, that the student can forget the lifeless formulas of generations of ushers, and see what creative artists have ever seen in the nude.
He will never learn to do this except by drawing constantly from the draped figure; firstly, because, strange as it may seem, clothed figures are less hackneyed for purposes of artistic study than the nude. The second reason is conclusive. It is because folds in clothes can only be drawn, if they are to be drawn at all, quickly, that is within the limited time that the best model can hold a pose. Let us put it at forty minutes for an average. Real education in drawing from the life is not only an artistic education, it is one of the most strenuous mental and moral educations that can be given to the human intelligence. Lord Morley said truly, at the Academy dinner I think it was, that work was the taking of definite decisions. Decision is the fence before which our poor humanity will eternally jib, and which it is incessantly inclined to refuse. Education is the training to face these decisions, to take them, and their consequences. It is the training that must enable us cautiously but firmly to test our strength in relation to these decisions, until the facing them becomes a second nature. Whistler often said to me from the depth of his soul, “We have only one enemy, and that is funk.”
My father used to say, and I am sure he was right, that a student’s earliest studies should already be of the nature of documents, to be used for a work that he intends. The history of the finest achievements in art bears this theory out. Our modern education, in vacuo, our practice of turning like squirrels in a cage of purposeless studies, is wasteful and deadening. It is like the procession of the “seasons” of a flirt, compared to the humblest marriage, a procession in which the curve of brilliancy soon ceases to be an ascending one.
If this be so, and if our studies of the nude are not to be regarded as mere gymnastics, and our faculty to treat the nude, if acquired, is not in later life to be exercised solely to the limits of the dinner-dress of a femme du monde, certain other considerations impose themselves. The nude occurs in life often as only partial, and generally in arrangements with the draped (Giorgione, Velasquez, Manet, Degas). Compositions consisting solely of nudes are generally (I have not forgotten certain exceptional flights of genius, such as the Rubens, in Munich, of the descent into hell) not only repellant, but slightly absurd. Even the picture or two (I think there are two) of the Master Ingres, which is a conglomeration of nudes, has something absurd and repellant, a suggestion of a dish of macaroni, something wriggling and distasteful. I think all great and sane art tends to present the aspect of life in the sort of proportions in which we are generally made aware of it. I state the law clumsily, but it is a great principle. Perhaps the chief source of pleasure in the aspect of a nude is that it is in the nature of a gleam – a gleam of light and warmth and life. And that it should appear thus, it should be set in surroundings of drapery or other contrasting surfaces. Some of our abler moderns have shown that they understand this. I can quote in my favour the practice of Mr. Strang (backs of men sitting by a canal) and Mr. Lambert.
© Estate of Walter R. Sickert

How to cite

Walter Richard Sickert, ‘The naked and the Nude’, in The New Age, 21 July 1910, pp.276–7, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012,, accessed 24 July 2024.