The Invention of Photography Emboldened Artists to Portray Overt Sexuality

Alina Cohen
Mar 18, 2019 7:43PM

Auguste Belloc, Nu féminin allongé, ca. 1855. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The advent and popularization of photography in the 19th century forever changed the way we look at the body. Instead of built-up brushstrokes, the black-and-white grain of film began to articulate the curves and angles of the human form. The mechanized process of photography promised greater fealty to corporeal truth than the painter’s hand, and easily reproducible images distributed carnal pleasures more simply and quickly than any canvas or print could.

Although scientists created various photographic methods in the early 1800s, scholars often note 1839 as the inception of the medium. That year, Louis Daguerre introduced the world to his daguerreotype, the first commercially viable photographic process. It was only a matter of time before photographers—especially the French, lascivious as any historical group, but less sexually repressed than their Victorian-era British counterparts—began snapping and circulating images of nude women.

To curb the booming pornography market, the French government established stringent regulations. Nude photographs were deemed permissible only for artistic purposes—as studies for paintings, for example. Nude images were legal if they were registered with Paris’s National Library, but a black market for unregistered pornographic images not linked to an artist’s studio practice also emerged. The French state, The Independent has reported, went so far as to jail the new pornographers.

Auguste Belloc, Erotische Fotografie, ca. 1850. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


One of the major nude photographers of the time, Auguste Belloc, was known for capturing solitary female figures on film. His photographs might seem in line with earlier painterly erotic tropes that invite the male gaze. Yet the accurate—and thus graphic—nature of photography and its unidealized representations of women’s bodies rapidly changed conceptions of eroticism and forced painters to alter their approach to nudity.

Even as pornographic photographs circulated throughout Europe, art historian Anne Higonnet recently told me, “the prestige of oil painting persisted. If you were a high-end collector,” she said, “you bought paintings.” Some people thrilled at the cheapness of photographs—others got off on spending more for their nudes.

Against this backdrop, the Paris-based Ottoman diplomat Khalil Bey, also known as Halil Şerif Pasha, commissioned one of the world’s most famous erotic paintings: L’Origine du monde, or The Origin of the World (1866), by Gustave Courbet. The work features a nude female torso, legs spread and one breast exposed. The historian Abigail Solomon-Godeau has called the painting a “beaver shot” for its graphic, in-your-face view of female genitalia.

Bey, a prolific collector of explicitly erotic art, mounted the painting behind a green curtain in his bathroom, the location itself suggestive of a less-than-pure intent. Just a few years later, in 1867, the diplomat added Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s The Turkish Bath (1852–59, modified in 1862) to his cache. The Orientalist canvas features a group of nude women sensually relaxing, playing music, and eating as they un-self-consciously lounge on a bathhouse floor. The work’s circular shape evokes a peephole—and also conjures a photographic lens—offering the viewer a significant opportunity for voyeurism.

Both the Ingres and Courbet canvases exemplify a major shift in the history of fine art produced for the explicit purpose of titillation. Before the invention of the camera, as art historian Raisa Rexer told me, much pornographic art was “based on action.” Many examples of erotic paintings, prints, and miniatures from the Renaissance to the early 19th century feature copulating couples, albeit fictional ones; these images were often couched in allegory and myth to justify their sexual nature.

Italian Renaissance printmakers like Giulio Bonasone depicted mating mythological figures in his series “The Loves of the Gods” (ca. 1531–76), and Agostino Caraccimade an entire series of fine-lined engravings called “Lascivie” (ca. 1590–95); one choice image shows a satyr penetrating a nymph. In the 18th century, English artists like Thomas Rowlandson and William Hogarth gained renown for satirical engravings that depict libidinous contemporary couples in order to comment on societal mores.

More traditional and “refined” nude paintings, however, like Titian’s famous Venus of Urbino (ca. 1538), favored idealism and allegory over anatomical accuracy or social commentary. After the popularization of the daguerreotype and its mechanical heirs, however, artists shifted from idealized, passive representations of femininity to depictions of real, modern women. The nude figure at the center of one of the era’s most infamous canvases, Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863), epitomizes the change. Instead of featuring a goddess or mythological figure, Manet focused his painting on a prostitute.

“Olympia’s pose no doubt imitates that of Titian’s sumptuous Urbino Venus,” art historian Charles Bernheimer has written, “but it also imitates, especially in the flatness and angularity of the image, crude pornographic photographs in many of which the women stare out at the viewer in a direct, uninflected manner reminiscent of Olympia’s gaze.”

Although Manet’s Olympia resolutely covers her sex with her hand—a far cry from from Courbet’s “beaver shot”—her upfront suggestion of intercourse evidences how painters were reconsidering their conceptions of sexuality with the advent of photography. Solomon-Godeau has additionally suggested that with photography, women could take a greater role in constructing their own poses—if still only for the pleasure of male viewers.

Manet’s work mimics the composition of Titian’s Venus, but radically alters the role of the viewer and subject, making both complicit in their gazes. Still, “the perspective of art historians,” Rexer said, “is if you have a naked woman, there’s some erotic looking going on.” She views images of women in states of undress—like Eugene Delacroix’s Woman With White Stockings (ca. 1825), to cite one example—as a particularly enduring erotic trope. The coy image anticipates a male voyeur to gaze on the submissive, vulnerable female figure. Courbet took on the genre in his own 1864 iteration, which shares the same title.

Scholars’ interpretations of erotic artworks and pornographic photographs, Rexer noted, have significant cultural differences. “French art historians speak about images with women’s legs open in aesthetic terms,” she said. “American art historians talk about the objectification of the body and capitalism.” Despite differing philosophies about economics, gender politics, and what is—and isn’t—pornography, most would agree that photography forever changed the way that artists—and the world—understood sex and the body. It unleashed new opportunities to affix women under the male gaze, yes, but an honesty and frankness, too.

Alina Cohen