December • 13 • 2020

Isabel Brennan
Jean-Léon Gérôme and the Female Nude:

A Sick Obsession


Figure 1: Jean-Léon Gérôme, Phryné Before the Areopagus, 1861, (80 x 128 cm), oil on canvas. Hamburg, Germany. Hamburger Kunstahlle, Freiherr Johann Heinrich von Schröder Foundation, 1910. Photographed by Elke Walford.

Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Phryne Before the Areopagus (1861) is an artwork indicative of not only Gérôme’s perception of a Greek tale but of Western culture’s fascination with and repulsion of the female nude beginning as far back as antiquity (Fig. 1). Phryne was a Greek prostitute, courtesan, and model born in the fourth century BCE. According to legend, Praxiteles, the ancient sculptor, fell in love with Phryne and used her as the model of the first female nude of Western tradition: The Aphrodite of Knidos (Fig. 2). Phryne has therefore been forever cast as the inciting female nude of Western culture whose narrative is carried by every successor. At the time of Aphrodite of Knidos between 360–330 BCE, the nude figure had been practiced extensively and exclusively using the male body. The male nude, through its creation and reproduction, came to represent perfection as the ideal figure to the people of antiquity, an opinion that continues today. (1) Meanwhile, according to Johann Winkelmann—the father of art history and a man whose book will be discussed in a later paragraph—the female nude was designed not as a counterpart to the male, but simply as a “libidinal charge.” (2) Thus, the female nude’s creation can be interpreted to have been with the distinct and singular desire to attract, never to encroach upon the divine male purpose.


Figure 2: Roman copy of Praxiteles, Aphrodite of Knidos, 1st BCE, (1.52 m), marble. Munich, Germany. Munich Glyptothek 258, number 232. University of Cambridge, Museum of Classical Archaeology Databases.

Both Phryne Before the Areopagus and the Aphrodite of Knidos cover themselves in shame before a male audience. This cultural ideal of modesty was established as far back as Phryne’s time by the name of pudicitas and continues today, thanks in part to Winkelmann. (3) As a result, the reception of the female nude in Western culture provides a perpetual tension between male attraction to and male loathing of female sexuality.

Jean-Léon Gérôme painted Phryne Before the Areopagus for the 1861 Salon. This is a depiction of the moment in 328 BC that Mnesarete (Phryne), the famous Greek courtesan, is being sentenced to death for impiety. According to Posidippus in his book Ephesian Women (c. 290 BC), Phryne disavowed the Gods through her public prostitution and was charged with “corrupt[ing] all the citizens.” (4) Before a throng of male judges, she awaits her unfortunate fate when Hypereides, her male defender and a famous orator, unexpectedly tears her garment away to reveal the body that has since come to inspire millions. The judges, as reported by the Deipnosophists, were

so overcome with a “superstitious fear” of Phryne’s beauty

that they acquitted her. (5) The majority of these spectators appear to be overcome by desire with expressions of shock, amazement, curiosity, and awe. Though not obvious, each man that employs their spectatorship over Phryne is symbolically erect (just as the viewer is supposed to be). (6)

A discrepancy of note is that of the literary source. There are two distinct stories to Phryne, yet neither of them are what Gérôme decided to depict. In Posidippus’s Ephesian Women, Phryne “besought the judges separately/With tears, and so just saved herself from judgement.” (7) This is an intimate and depressing scene of a woman pleading for her life and doesn’t depict anyone very heroically. The more quoted story of Phryne is the one that depicts Hypereides failing in his oration defense of the courtesan, and in his desperation, he brings Phryne out to tear open her tunic and show the judges her true beauty. However, instead of tucking her face away in shame, Phryne is supposed to appear as “a prophetess and priestess of Venus.” (8) Edward Degas spoke of Gérôme’s Phryne saying, “What can be said of a painter who has turned Phryné before the Areopagus into a little girl ashamed, who wants to hide? Phryné did not hide and could not hide, because her nudity was precisely the cause of her glory.” (9) The Greek prostitute had been built up through hundreds of years as a woman possessing such beauty that she was acquitted of impiety, a beauty that had the power to overcome failing the divinities. And yet, Gérôme’s Phryne is not beautiful, possessing, or commanding in any way. Gérôme’s Phryne is instead submissive and abashed, portraying no Goddess at all.

Gérôme tried to cast Phryne as a Greek sculpture, a woman of stone so idealized that nature itself had been abandoned, giving way to a sense of abstraction, perhaps even distortion. Marie-Christine Leroux, the model of Gérôme’s Phryne, was horribly misconstrued through the application of paint on canvas (Fig. 3). All her female nature was corrupted to become instead what Gérôme thought Phryne should be. Despite Gérôme’s efforts, Phryne became a stiff marionette of a woman so skewed by the ideals of man that her proportions had become unrecognizable. As a statuette cast on a pedestal before both the viewer as well as the judges, Phryne is depicted not as a real, living woman or even as a Greek prostitute, but as an abstract object for the male gaze. Her pale white skin and feigned contrapposto being characteristics more of Greek marble than of a real woman.


Figure 3: Nadar, Standing Female Nude (Marie-Christine Leroux), 1860-1861, (20.2 x 13.3 cm), salted paper print from glass negative. New York, USA. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number 1991.1174. Purchase from the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 1991.

Regardless of harsh criticism, the public appreciated the large historical painting, and it was considered a success. Having established both “voyeuristic appeal and technical virtuosity,” the painting was appreciated mainly in private studies in which men would spend time and converse, and likely enjoy the erotic art. (10) However, critics began to grow suspicious of Gérôme’s popularity, believing it to have been created on “something completely different from artistic passion.” (11) They condemned Gérôme as nothing more than a pornography painter, whose talent was wasted solely on lewd images. The critics believed the scenes and narratives of Gérôme’s work acted only as an excuse to display women in compromising positions.

Gérôme’s Phryne is considered to be a work from his mature oeuvre, though not a late one. He presented at the Salon several times and the Phryne Before the Areopagus is considered typical for the artist. The female nude was a large part of the artist's oeuvre, probably for a single reason: his fantasies. It is no secret that Gérôme loved female nudity––especially art that depicts women submitting to men or caught in private moments. A painting that is very similar to Gérôme’s Phryne

Before the Areopagus is his Slave Market of 1866 (Fig. 4). Though painted five years later, the only aspect that largely changed was Gérôme’s use of Orientalism. Both Phryne and the slave are actively probed and judged by the men, as well as the viewer of the paintings. Both women, under the scrutiny of the male gaze, are perfectly willing to simply accept men’s desires upon themselves and submit, just as Gérôme would have wanted. 


Figure 4: Jean-Léon Gérôme, Slave Market, 1866, (84.6 x 63.3 cm), oil on Canvas. Williamstown, Massachusetts. The Clark Art Institute, 1955.53. Acquired by Sterling and Francine Clark, 1930.

Instead of Gérôme being inspired by any one artist or painting, it appears that Gérôme was inspired to paint Phryne to actively subvert the growing number of women in the public sphere. At the end of the 19th century, women were beginning to explore the public space like never before, and as a male artist, Gérôme would have likely felt encroached upon and threatened by active women. Displaying Phryne, a once very active, public woman of antiquity, as an ashamed woman in a moment of public ridicule, Gérôme could subvert the feminist movement of his day. This took away all power of spectatorship that was, at that time, becoming equalized between the genders and returned it solely to men.

There is one academic Gérôme would have been professionally influenced by, though he may have hated to admit it. Angelica Kauffman painted Phryne Seduces Xenocrates in 1794 (Fig. 5). Though Gérôme decided to depict the heroic version of Phryne’s story in which she is forcefully unveiled, Kauffman painted

a skewed version of Posidippus’ poem. She opted to depict Phryne intimately connecting to the judges seeking pity—though not with tears, but with eager desire. And while Gérôme opted to paint Phryne bared, Kauffman allows Phryne the security of clothing. This distinction is created with the insinuation that Phryne would take off her clothing according to her own decision, not Hypereides’s. Therefore, as compared to Gérôme’s submissive, inactive object of a prostitute, Kauffman painted an active agent of her own story about to employ her skills, without waiting for Hypereides to do it for her. Whereas Gérôme’s judges seem overtaken with lustful emotion, Xenocrates seems almost put-off––as if annoyed that Phryne is interrupting his philosophical studies. Therefore, where Gérôme paints the men as active subjects and Phryne as the object of gaze, Kauffman created a scene where Phryne is the active subject and Xenocrates is the object of her affection. Though both paintings appear to contain numerous historical inaccuracies and misinterpretations, Gérôme’s is most obviously painted to indulge in the male gaze while Kauffman’s is the Phryne painted by someone with empathy for a female subject.


Figure 5: Angelica Kauffman, Phryne Seduces Xenocrates, 1794, (28.3 x 25.3 cm), oil on canvas.

Johann Winkelmann is the man that many people today believe to be the father of art history. A German historian and archaeologist, Winkelmann sought to create a chronological and stylized system through which he could make sense of the art of antiquity. It is through his book History of the Art of Antiquity (1764) that most of the languages and styles of art history are derived even today. Unfortunately, however, in his reconfiguration of antiquity, Winkelmann did not right the wrongs of the past. He continued to discriminate against the female nudes of antiquity, instead preferring the male nudes. Winkelmann’s personal preferences may be due in part to his documented identity as a homosexual man. (12) He believed that the male nude was something sublime, able to both exude and deny subjectivity and desire. (13) The male nude, therefore, was absolute and inhumane perfection. The female nude, in contrast, exudes mere beauty—beauty being “the gratifying object of desire, easy and pleasing to look at, readily appropriated and unthreatening.” (14) Simply put, while the male nude is the nude of perfection, the female exists for nothing more than pretty decoration. 


Truly, the sexism against women has been apparent throughout Western culture from the very beginning. The female narration was canceled so that men may indulge in their desires and pleasures, her agency removed in favor of pleasing the male-dominated public. From the very beginning of the nude tradition, the female nude had been cast as the other, forever in the shadow of her male counterpart. 

Gérôme actively fought against equality in his creations of Phryne Before the Areopagus and multiple other works dedicated to subverting femininity. The culture that has been established continues to exist but must actively be resisted. The very nature of gender within Western culture was created on a divided line. As a result, the world today has continued to constitute a clearly preferential binary. The female gender was both objectified and belittled for beauty since the beginning of antiquity, an oppression of genders embedded within artistic culture. If equality is ever to exist, these instances of deep inequality embedded within the history of our visual culture must continue to be interrogated.

• • •


Isabel Brennan is a junior undergraduate at the Savannah College of Art and Design, currently working with the Savannah African Art Museum. Growing up internationally, she developed a love for exploring cultures and histories. She intends to develop a thesis on an exploration of gender within artistic representation.


1. James Smalls, Homosexuality in Art (New York: Parkstone Press Ltd, 2003), 21.

2. Alex Potts, Flesh and the Ideal: Winkelmann and the Origins of Art History (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994), 113.

3. Pudicitas translates to “modesty” or “sexual virtue” in the Latin of Phryne’s time. It is used contextually to denote an antiquarian culture in which women’s sexuality was rigidly controlled through the application of shame.

4.Posidippus, Ephesian Women as cited in C. D. Yonge, The Deipnosophists or Banquet of the Learned of Athenæus (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1854), 944.

5. Yonge, The Deipnosophists, 942.

6. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 1979), 6 as cited in Anna C. Chave, “New Encounters with Les Demoiselles D’Avignon: Gender, Race and the Origins of Cubism,” in Reclaiming Female Agency: Feminist Art History after Postmodernism (London: University of California Press, 2005), 306.

7. Yonge, The Deipnosophists, 944.

8. Ibid., 942.

9. G. Jeannoit, “Souvenirs sur Degas,” La Revue Universelle, LV (1933), 172 quoted in Scott C. Allen, in The Spectacular art of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), ed. Laurence Des Cars, Dominique de Font-Relaux and Edouard Papet (London, Milan: Skira, 2010), 268.

10. Scott C. Allen, The Spectacular art of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), eds. Laurence Des Cars, Dominique de Font-Relaux and Edouard Papet (London, Milan: Skira, 2010), 268; Ibid., 174.

11. “Nos Peintres au Champ-de-Mars,” in E. Zola, Ecrits sur l’art (Paris: Gallimard, 1991), p. 184 as cited in Makariou and Maury, The Spectacular Art, 268.

12. Whitney Davis, “Winkelmann Divided: Mourning the Death of Art History,” in The Art of Art History, ed. Donald Preziosi (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 37. 

13. Potts, Flesh and the Ideal, 113.

14. Ibid., 115.