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 ’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.