Saturday, 25 May 2013

The bared bosom in 17th and 18th century art

Mary Robinson as Perdita by John Hoppner
Though perfectly decent, a closer look reveals that the
neckline is so low that if it wasn't for the neckerchief, she would,
 indeed, show a lot more.

Recently I found an 18th century beauty recipe that baffled meIt basically contains pigment and essential oils and amenirdis at Livejournal  suggested that this could be a recipe for nipple rouge. Though I haven’t been able to prove that, if does make sense and it lead me to read up on bared breasts and revealed nipples, mainly during the 17th and 18th century. If painted nipples offend you, then be warned that this post contains lots of them.

The Countess of Somerset,
 early 17th century
The naked female breast has always been sexually interesting. The favoured shape and size may vary, but the interest remains and so it has always been popular to depict bare-breasted females in art. This post will not delve into the abundance of naked goddesses and nymphs that frolic though the woods in Western art, but their more everyday sisters. Showing a nipple or two was, up until the early 19th century, not such a big deal. It might feel odd for us who live in a society where exposed nipples still are taboo and highly sexualized. No doubt breast and nipples where considered sexy a couple of hundreds years ago as well, but showing them- not really a biggie. Exposed legs would have been much riskier. But, even if you can find bare breasts in paintings, did women really flaunt them in public?
Pauline Bonaparte by Robert Lefèvre, 1806.
 Covered up, but talk about sheer!

I think the answer is yes, to a point. Dresses so low-cut that the nipples showed (or threatened to show) were fashionable several times during the 17th and 18th century. The early 1600 saw dresses that go so deep down that you almost expect the belly button to show. Necklines continued to be low for the following two centuries and paired with stays that pushed the breasts upwards, spillage could happen by mistake, and, at times, evidently by purpose. Emilie du Chatelet, the mistress of Voltaire was a scientist and intellectual, but also a fashionista and in the mid-18th century she was known for her flamboyant gowns and for starting a fashion in not only revealing, but rouging her nipples. There is also a miniature of the Danish queen Caroline Matilda where her rouged nipples are visible. In the 1780’s it became popular with gowns cut so low that the nipples showed and there is a number of fashion plate that shows of most of the breasts.
1780's fashion plate.
Follow the link for more fashion plates
with very low necklines.
The Regency and its see-through fabrics could reveal quite a bit, but when Victoria entered the stage, the nipple disappeared from fashion.There are also satirical drawings of ladies being very exposed, which is quite good evidence that this actually happened. You don’t make cartoons of something that doesn’t exist.   

17th century woodcut
1780's cartoon
L'essay du corset, engraving from 1788
Low-cut stays for a low-cut gown.
Lady dressed as Flora by Isaac Oliver, early 17th century.
Though not low-cut, her shift is so transparent that the
nipples are visible.
Other areas where breast could be publicly displayed were masques, plays and ballets. Inigo Jones designed several costumes were the nipples showed in the early 17th century. Some of these were meant for queen Henrietta Maria and even if it is not known if she actually wore them as intended (at least one design were re-made into a more modest version), it doesn’t seem that anyone though it odd to suggest such a costume for the queen of England.  
Madame de Porcin by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1774
Swedish actress and courtesan Charlotta Eckerman by Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller, 1784
Marie-Thérèse Louise de Savoie-Carignan Princess of Lamballe
 byJoseph-Siffrein Duplessis, last quarter of the 18th century
Childless and never (at least not until after the French revolution)
 sexually linked to anyone but her husband, the Princess Lamballe's
 visible nipple indicate her birth and morality.
So, fashion slaves and performers could have gone bare at times, but that still seems to be more of an occasional and rare nature. Art, however, display a lot more nakedness, but then that could also have a number of symbolic meanings that sometimes overlapped and sometimes contradicted each other. It may seem odd, but showing off the breasts could be seen as an implication of chastity. The idea was that the high youthful breast belonged to a woman who hadn’t born a child and, perhaps, hadn’t even had sex yet. The exposure of just one breast could be seen as a symbol for high birth and outstanding moral character.

That visible nipples and breasts could indicate innocence sometimes makes my modern eyes react with a hiccup. Like when I spotted the nipple glimpse on the portrait of a very young Caroline Mathilde or the shadow on Pinkie’s bosom, which might be the shadow of her hand or a nipple showing through the thin fabric of her gown. These are portraits commissioned of the girl’s families and evidently they didn’t protest. However, take a peek through Greuze production and the mass of very young women that show their breasts starts to feel quite sleazy.


Sophia Hedwig, Countess of Nassau Dietz, with her Three Sons
 by Paul Moreelse, 1621
It could also stand for maternity and love. In 1621 the Countess of Nassau Dietz was portrayed as Caritas with her three sons, and as Countess she wasn’t just a mother for her own family, but for her people as well. When Mary of Orange became queen of England in 1689 a popular ballad praised her modesty while the illustration showed off her breasts. Elizabeth of Bohemia, in another ballad, showed her with her children, with her bosom uncovered. The nakedness here points toward the royal ladies nurturing aspect and not loose morals. 
Queen Mary on a ballad sheet, late 17th century

Royal mistresses, who by definition couldn’t be called virtuous, have also traditionally been portrayed with the breasts in full display. Nell Gwyn, one of Charles II’s mistresses excelled in that- she seem to reveal something in almost every painting of her that I have seen. Generally the showing of both breasts pointed more toward a lack of moral, but as many of these mistresses also often were picked from the nobility, they are very often portrayed with just one breast showing. Somewhat ambiguous, yes?

Nell Gwyn, the studio of Sir Peter Lely, second half of the 17th century
This portrait was modified by later and more prudish generations, the chemise raised to hide her nipples.

Hortense Mancini by Jacob Fredinand Voet, ca 1675
One of the nieces to cardinal Mazarin, Hortense was definitely the upper crust. A great beauty who had a great deal of lovers, Charles II, for example. So what does her naked breast allude to?


Anna Maria, Countess of Shrewsbury by Sir Peter Lely, ca 1670.
At first glance it looks like her nipple shows, but look closer, it is really a lock of her hair.

More of a fun fact, perhaps, is that several low-cut paintings make a play of the displayed, of perhaps not displayed nipple.

Madame de Pompadour by Francois Boucher, 1749-50.
The rose placed exactly were her nipple would be, do indeed look like one at a distance.

Wilhelmine Encke, Countess Lichtenau by Anna Dorothea Therbusch, 1776.
Here the nipple do show, but all the pink and the buttons at the neckline makes it hard to spot. She was, incidently, the mistress of King Frederick William II of Prussia.
Read more

A History of the Nipple in Polite Society

The 17th-Century Breastoration: A Time Before Bras

How to spot an Old Master: The hidden masterpieces to be found in antiques fairs, car boot sales and garages

The Jacobean masque: were they really topless?

The Naughty Side of 18th Century French Fashions

Revealing Mary

Voltaire & the Divine Emilie

Le bouton de rose by Pierre-Alexanre Wille, second half of the 18th century


Anonymous said...

Wonderful article! I love how you always gather plenty of pictorial evidence to illustrate your point. I had always wondered what sort of miracle kept ladies in the early 17th century from falling out of their low-cut scoop necks (like this one), but now it seems as though nothing really did! I know with my large bosoms, I'd fly out of one of those gowns with just the slightest jostle!

Isis said...

The Pragmatic Costumer: I'm so glad you liked it! I'm a pretty visual person, so I like to have lots of pictyures. :) I too- I wouldn't dare to wear one... I have problems enough with my 18th century gowns...

Cassidy said...

Great article! It's a topic that I've been wondering about since a few of the Galerie des Modes plates show oddly low-cut necklines.

A traveller in time said...

This is a topic I've been wondering about for a long time. Thank you for saving me a lot of time with this wonderful post. Fabulous as always!

Isis said...

Cassidy and A traveller in time: I'm so glad you enjoyed it.

Unknown said...

additionally, exploring the fact that many portraitures were altered to hide the nipple due to a swing back toward puritanical sex-shaming morality occurred as well

Capt'n Tor said...

also should be within the discussion was the 'cover=up' and destruction that occurred to the art of the era by the sweeping in of the sex-shaming of women through the dogma of religious ideologies. Much beautiful art was hidden, destroyed, or altered to be more 'modest' in its presentation.

Random Ponderings said...

Yes to "Unknown" and " Capt'n Tor". A look at many paintings that were not destrpyed, shows evidence of "fig leafing" campaigns which also concealed the female breast. Anyone extremely familiar with the costuming of a given era knows perfectly well how high up a woman's breasts would have been in a given gown (in come cases the nipples would have almost been in line with arm pits, due to corsetry that included a stomacher).

Have a good look a the "Rainbow Portrait" of "Queen Elizabeth I" some time. Her bust does not match the corestry style of the day. Her nipples would have been higher (at least in partial view).

The Queeen was well known for her love of the fashion of "Extreme Décolletage" and the gown WOULD count if it were being honest about what would be seen in a gown of that sort. I have to wonder if it once was more honest. The Venetian ambassador went on at length about he showing off her entire breasts into her old age. We also know that in her era, they had an obsession with the "perky breasts" of virgins in and the painting was supposed to portray a younger Elizabeth (at an age when she definitely would have had most of her bust on display. Back then you could not have walked down a public street without seeing a lot of nipples.

However, even if we take the "Rainbow Portrait" as having taken some artistic license with the reality of the era underpinning, we have another far more obvious "change painting".

The painting of Isabella Rich (Mrs Rogers) done in 1614-18 by William Larkin.

The censorship on this one is too obvious to be arguable. The detail in the fabric is amazing. There are shadows and folds, hints of refection of shot fabric and intricate lace - and a very low Décolletage (in an era of high push-up corsets). Yet despite such a low bust, with a corset that shoved everything up so far, we see nothing of the 3 dimensional reality of her breasts (only one small hint of shadow in the center). The paint on her chest is completely wrong when compared to the quality of the rest of the work. There is only one pigment color use on most of the chest (in a painting with that much attention to detail and pigment). In point of fact the necklace she is wearing appears to be painted over in places.

Kasey Zendejas said...

This was so interesting! You've given me a better understanding of a lot of the art I saw in Europe. Thanks for your research and illustrations!

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