This is one post in a series of articles about our visit to Paris.
When I told my mom I was writing about our time in Paris, she asked, “Are you going to talk about the naked men?” She was referring, of course, to the collection of sculptures that we saw at the Louvre, which, yes, did include quite a few nude male subjects.
“I’ve told all of my friends that there were lots of sculptures of naked men, and they look at me like I’m crazy, so now I can show them.”
Of the many fascinating artifacts we saw at the Louvre, the thing that most stands out to mom is the naked men.
But you know what? Why not? The sculptures were beautiful. The artists took the lovely aesthetic that is the human body and immortalized it in marble. And it wasn’t just the bare bums and the chiseled muscles; everything about these statues was sensational. Each was arresting and thought-provoking, each told a story, and the best ones, like Nike, the female subject of the Winged Victory of Samothrace (below), pulsed with such energy that it seemed she had just stopped moving the moment we laid eyes on her.
We saw only a fraction of the sculptures in the Louvre’s collection. Here’s a sampling, starting with two world-famous women:
Venus de Milo
Aphrodite of Milos, better known as Venus de Milo, is one of the most famous ancient Greek sculptures in existence. This marble statue, created at some point between 130 and 100 BC, is thought to represent Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty (known as Venus to the Romans); however, The Louvre points out that her identity is uncertain and describes her as a goddess who is “shrouded in mystery.” The statue was discovered in 1820 by a farmer on the island of Milos; it was buried within the ruins of an ancient city by the same name. The artist was Alexandros of Antioch, who carved Venus de Milo from two blocks of marble that were then joined together. At six feet, seven inches tall, she is statuesque and lovely.
A story circulated for a time that her limbs were broken off during a fight between French and Turkish soldiers who were vying for possession of her, but these days it’s generally accepted that her arms were already missing when she was discovered.
The Winged Victory of Samothrace
“One of the masterpieces of Hellenistic sculpture,” as the Louvre describes it, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, also called Nike of Samothrace, is a marble statue that depicts the Greek goddess Nike (Roman: Victoria) standing on the prow of a ship. It is generally accepted that Winged Victory, created in the second century BC, was an offering from the people of Rhodes to Nike in gratitude for their victory in a naval battle. She is meant to be seen as descending from the heavens to welcome the return of the victorious navy, and it’s thought that her right hand was cupped around her mouth to shout a message of victory.
The sculpture was discovered in 1863 on the small Greek island of Samothrace. While other fragments of the statue, including her right hand, were found during later excavations, her head was never recovered.
This statue really was something to behold. Strutting across the ship’s bow toward her victorious people, bold and confident, her wings extended wide behind her and her robe clinging to her perfect body–what a powerhouse.
Seeing Venus de Milo and The Winged Victory of Samothrace, two Greek masterpieces, was lovely, but it was the assemblage of French sculptures that brought my mother to life.
After several hours in the museum, she was bowled over with jet lag, and I thought we were going to have to leave. But then we wandered into the collection of French 18th- and 19th-century sculptures displayed on the ground floor of the Richelieu wing:
Mom perked up immediately. She has since described this collection of sculptures as “something to talk about”–and she’s not only referring to the fact that they were, ahem, anatomically correct. Each one also presented a dramatic story in classical artistic fashion, and we enjoyed the 3D illustrations of agony, devastation, fury, and love etched into the facial expressions and body language of the subjects:
Also known as Four Defeated Nations: Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, Brandenburg, and Holland. Artist: Martin DesJardins
The Story: France defeated several nations in the Franco-Dutch War (1672-1678), which ended in 1679 with the signing of the Treaty of Nijmegen. Four Captives is a large, complex sculpture that includes four men, each representing a different defeated nation.
The sculpture was commissioned in 1679 and inaugurated in 1686. The captives represent mankind at various ages, from young (Spain) to elderly (Roman Empire), and each man expresses a different response to his nation’s loss in the war, including revolt, hope, resignation, and grief.
Le Génie de la chasse dit aussi Hallali du cerf
“The Genius of hunting deer, also said Hallali”
Artist: Jean-Baptiste De Bay
I couldn’t find anything of substance about this sculpture (in translatable English, at least), but it certainly is exciting!
Artist: David D’Angers
The Story: Greek hero Philopoemen, wounded in battle, pulls a javelin out of his thigh before returning to battle. Tough guy!
Hercule combattant Achéloüs métamorphosé en serpent
“Hercules fights Achéloüs, who has turned into a serpent”
Artist: François-Joseph Bosio
The story: Hercules and Achéloüs are duking it out over Deianira, whom they both love. Achéloüs turns into a serpent, but Hercules is victorious! (Truly one of the coolest statues in the exhibit)
Nisus et Euryalus
Artist: Jean-Baptiste Roman
The Story: Nisus and Euryalus, characters from Virgil’s epic Aeneid, are best friends fighting on the side of the Trojans in the Trojan War. Take one guess as to their fate (they’re both slain by the enemy).
Oedipe enfant rappelé à la vie par le berger Phorbus qui l’a détaché de l’arbre
“Oedipus child brought back to life by the Phorbas shepherd who detached from the tree”
Artist: Antoine-Denis Chaudet
The story: Baby Oedipus is rescued by a shepherd named Phorbas.
Bacchante au tambour de basque avec deux enfants
“Priestess holding a tambourine, with two children”
Artist: Augustin Pajou
Saturne enlevant Cybèle
“Saturn abducting Cybéle”
Artist: Thomas Regnaudin
The story: It was difficult to understand the exact story behind this statue given the muddled Google translations of the French information I found, but I believe Saturne enlevant Cybèle is one of four statues intended for Versailles, and each one represents one of the four classical elements (earth, water, air, and fire). Saturne enlevant Cybèle is an allegory of the earth. Saturn is kidnapping the ancient Phrygian goddess Cybele.
This sculpture was one of our favorites because there was so much to take in. The action seemed to be spiraling upward.
Plus it has this gnarly, very realistic head of Medusa, tongue splayed, uvula clearly visible. I have no idea how Medusa fits into this story, but I’m delighted that she (or her head, rather) makes an appearance in this trippy sculpture.
Why all the nudity?
So why are the subjects of so many statues naked? Apparently, my mother is not the only one who’s wondered about this; it was easy enough to find plenty of information online.
The Greeks started what’s become a common feature in classical western art. Before the Greeks, when nudity was depicted in art, (as in works by the Assyrians and Egyptians, for example), it represented weakness and was associated with humiliation and defeat.
But then the Greeks came along and presented the human body as something to be revered, not shunned. The Greeks weren’t ashamed of nudity, and in fact it was commonly incorporated into daily life. No, they didn’t spend their days unclothed, and they certainly didn’t go into battle naked (unlike what some artwork would have you believe), but they did attend parties and religious festivals naked, and athletes also practiced and sometimes competed in the nude.
Initially, the only women depicted naked were slaves, but by the fourth century, BC, artists often presented Aphrodite in the nude, and the variety of female subjects gradually widened.
One other interesting point—while nudity was a way to illustrate heroics, the Greeks found demonstration of public arousal to be unseemly, and that’s why the genitalia on these male sculptures are so diminutive. For Greek artists, the nude subjects they created were not meant to be lusted after or gawked at; they were to be celebrated as illustrations of heroism and nobility.
The Greeks’ bold portrayal of the naked human body strongly influenced much of the classical Western art that followed, including that of the Romans as well as, obviously, artists from 18th- and 19th-century France!