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Rene-Antoine Houasse, Narcissus at the fountain, 1686. ©ENSBA, Paris

LONDON.- Including artists such as Rigaud, Boucher, Nattier, Pierre, Carle van Loo, Gros and Jean-Baptiste Isabey, this exhibition, of nearly forty French drawings of male nude figures, all drawn between the late seventeenth and the late eighteenth centuries, is unprecedented in Britain. Lent by France’s equivalent of the Royal Academy, the Ėcole nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, many of the extraordinary drawings are by artists represented in the Wallace Collection. The Wallace Collection displays one of the greatest collections of eighteenth-century French paintings in the world, and these drawings from Paris make an excellent complement to them. The Hertfords collected almost no academic, or historical works, for which these drawings were the basis, favouring ‘pleasing pictures’: portraits and landscapes. In many ways, The Male Nude offers the visitor a new dimension and complete the jigsaw. Seen alongside our world-class holdings of eighteenth century furniture and decorative arts, they will provide a thorough understanding of the period. 

Painting in eighteenth-century France before the Revolution was centred on the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture which had been founded in 1648. The purpose of the Academy was to train the most important artists and to provide them with the raw materials for successful history painting, which was by far the most esteemed genre for an artist to practise. Budding painters or sculptors would be apprenticed to a master, but much of their training would take place at the Academy where the drawing of the male human figure was at the core of the curriculum. Only after mastering the copying of drawings and engravings, and then casts of antique sculptures, would the student be allowed to progress to drawing the nude figure in the life class. The drawings they produced there were so associated with the Academy that they came to be known as académies. 

The male human figure was regarded as the very foundation of painting and sculpture; it had to be mastered by any aspiring artist of the highest class. No female artists were admitted to the Academy life drawing classes and all models were male. This practice in itself went on to create problems for artists, who, lacking the necessary training to portray the female form, were compelled to search out models, not always in the most respectable and salubrious settings. Classes were complemented by courses on anatomy, perspective, geometry, literature and history. The Academy’s training was learned and structured, and, although it was sometimes criticized for its rigour and its insistence on discipline and uniformity, it produced superb draughtsmen. Some of the artists featured became painting Masters of their generation, focusing on historical and allegorical pictures. Others utilised their training in a variety of artistic fields, including Bachelier, who went on to assume the role of Director of Design and Decoration at the Sèvres porcelain factory, influencing many of the pieces exhibited in the Wallace Collection. 

Variety and beauty are omnipresent in The Male Nude. Highly respected artists such as Boucher were students and went on to become tutors and other great artists returned to brush up on their drawing practice. Their drawings are included in the exhibition and it was their teaching direction that resulted in the enormous variety of poses on display: classically-inspired, active and resting, and in various degrees of light and shade. 

As a descendant of the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, the Ėcole nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts owns an incomparable collection of these académies which have come down to it directly from the Academy’s teaching classes. It also owns an outstanding collection of drawings, second only to the Louvre in France, comprising not only a superb group of French drawings, but many works by some of the other great draughtsmen of European art, such as Raphael, Dürer and Michelangelo. This exhibition at the Wallace Collection is an excellent opportunity for collections at ENSBA – which are open to anyone to visit – to become much better known to a British audience, as well as allowing visitors an insight into this influential, but now non-existent world. 

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Hyacinthe Rigaud, Two fighters, (undated). (c) ENSBA, Paris.

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Jacques Dumont le Romain, Nude man sleeping and leaning on a rock, viewed from behind, 1742. (c) ENSBA, Paris.

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Jean-Baptiste Lagrenee, Seated man, leaning on his right arm, 1789. (c) ENSBA, Paris.

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Antoine-Jean Gros, Man standing, striking a bull, 1790. (c) ENSBA, Paris.

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Carle Van Loo, Study of a man sat on a rock, face on, (undated). (c) ENSBA, Paris.

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Francois Boucher, Study of a man lying down, an elbow leaning on the ground, 1739. (c) ENSBA, Paris.