The representation of the unadorned human body by artists—the transformation of the naked into the nude—was reckoned among the highest goals of European art from the Renaissance until well into the present century. But preconceptions of what such images should look like have changed radically during that period. Nowadays, the gender of a ‘nude’ is assumed to be female, unless we are told otherwise. This has not always been the case. Until the eighteenth century, the high status accorded to the nude in art was bound up with the status accorded to Man in the Christian religion. According to the book of Genesis, God made Man in His own image, not Woman. In representing Man and his deeds, the artist came closest to depicting an otherwise invisible Deity. The more secular outlook of the Enlightenment did not change this aspect of the artist’s task, since art was expected to serve the interests of a public sphere modelled on that of ancient Greece and Rome, also defined as male.

The automatic privileging of the male over the female nude in art ended in the early nineteenth century, and the rise of the female nude at that time has received considerable attention from art historians. In Male Trouble, footnote Abigail Solomon-Godeau concentrates on the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the last era during which the male figure dominated high art production. She deals chiefly with painting in France. French art was a model for art produced else-where in Europe throughout this period, in spite of the disruptive effects of the Revolution and the Napoleonic wars on the international art scene. But it is only recently that the male-centred painting produced by French artists at this time has received much attention from art historians, notably in Thomas Crow’s Emulation: Making Artists for Revolutionary France. footnote1

Like Crow, Solomon-Godeau adopts an approach which is far from being narrowly art-historical. She examines evolving codes for the representation of the naked male body, identifying two contrasting types of male nude in French art of this period. One is an ‘active and virile warrior type’ exemplified in Jacques-Louis David’s prerevolutionary paintings of scenes from Roman history, notably his ‘Oath of the Horatii’ of 1785, now in the Louvre. The other, ‘the more or less feminized ephebe’, is a type which she finds in paintings such as the same artist’s depiction of the dying boy hero of the revolutionary wars, Bara (Musée Calvet, Avignon). It is the ephebic type which is most extensively discussed and illustrated in her book.

The revolutionary and post-revolutionary period witnessed the definitive exclusion of women from the public sphere in France. This has long been recognized as a key moment in the construction of modern stereotypes of gender difference and the way in which that difference is represented—for example, in radically contrasting modes of dress for women and for men. Solomon-Godeau relates changes in the appearance of male nudes to these developments. In doing so, she makes use of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s writings on homosociality in English literature. According to Solomon-Godeau, the forging of an exclusively masculine public sphere in French politics entailed the consolidation of masculine bonds between ‘putatively equal, sovereign subjects’. This led to the ‘inscription within a single-sex model of sexual difference’, yielding the two contrasting types which she describes, with the warrior-type as a masculinized model and the ephebe-type as a ‘stand-in for an eroticized femininity deemed inimical to republican and civic values’. The ascendance of the ephebe-type marks ‘the swan-song of an erotically invested masculinity. . .that sanctioned male narcissism and bodily display’. At the same time, it ‘presages the visual syntax of the nineteenth-century female nude, a body designed for display and delectation, a “legitimized” sensuality that henceforth the male body must nominally abjure’.

There are several problems with this argument. Most of them have to do with the author’s choice of homosociality as a framework for her analysis.footnote2 Initially, Solomon-Godeau’s interpretation of the homosocial appears to be psychological rather than social. She cites recent works by Lynn Hunt and Neil Herz as precedents for her approach (p. 31). Like Solomon-Godeau, these writers foreground the sexual in their interpretations of the political culture of this period. Both adopt specifically Freudian perspectives in their analyses of cultural phenomena associated with the Revolution. Herz, for example, gives an account of the way in which the Phrygian cap, or Cap of Liberty, was invested with emotional significance by male property-owners traumatized by the experience of violent revolution. But it is precisely because the liberty cap is such an insignificant and unthreatening object that it could provide an effective vehicle for anxieties of castration and annihilation which were too disturbing to attain conscious expression. It is impossible to detect an equivalent psychic gain in the model offered by Solomon-Godeau. How could the transfer of feminine characteristics, if such there be, to representations of some male nudes, and the exaggeration of male characteritics in others, make the exclusion of women from public life more acceptable for male spectators? Might such representations not have functioned as reminders of excluded women, rather than as substitutes? If not, why not?