Auguste Rodin, Male Torso, ca. 1887 (Paris, France, Le Petit Palais)
In 1887 or thereabouts, when looking round his studio, Rodin was excited to come across an abandoned study for the big plaster Saint John the Baptist that he exhibited at the Salon of 1880: a man’s torso, fissured, cracked and incomplete. To preserve its almost archaeological beauty, this great lover of antique works had a mould and a very fine cast made of it. These are presented here.
Caravaggio, Medusa, 1595-8 (Florence, Italy, Uffizi Gallery)
In 1598, Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte gave this artwork to the Grand Duke Ferdinando I. The Medusa is painted on canvas applied to a wooden shield. The subject is mythological, referring to Athena’s shield which was cunningly used to exploit the Medusa’s power to petrify people. The Medici often made use of this iconography to represent their military power. Rather than basing the painting on ancient sources, Caravaggio captures the expression on the Medusa’s face, deformed as it is in horror at having been beheaded, while even the mane of serpents writhes in all directions.
— based on Google Art Project
For the next theme, something a bit more gruesome: body parts and decapitations.
Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat, 1793 (Brussels, Belgium, Royal Museums of Fine Arts)
[David] took an active part in the French Revolution […]. During this time he painted his greatest picture, The Death of Marat. David’s deep emotion has made a masterpiece from a subject that would have embarrassed a lesser artist. Marat, one of the political leaders of the Revolution, had been murdered in his bathtub. A painful skin condition required immersion, and he did his work there, with a wooden board serving as his desk. One day a young woman named Charlotte Corday burst in with a personal petition, and plunged a knife into his chest while he read it. David has composed the scene with a stark directness that is awe-inspiring.
— A. F. Janson and H. W. Janson, A History of Art, p. 674-675
Frida Kahlo, What the water gave me (What I saw in the water), 1938 (Paris, France, collection Daniel Filipacchi)
Hippolyte Flandrin, Young man sitting by the sea, 1836 (Paris, France, Louvre Museum)
This refined nude is a perfect example of the neo-classical esthetic practised by Ingres’ students. The backdrop of a seascape heightens the rather eerie atmosphere of the scene, showing how this generation of artists undertook to renew the classical esthetic and realign it with contemporary tastes. […] The painting was sent from Rome to Paris in 1836 as an example of the students’ work. It was shown at the 1855 Universal Exhibition in Paris and was purchased in 1857 by Napoleon III’s civil list.
Gustave Courbet, Woman in the Waves, 1868 (New York, USA, The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
In Woman in the Waves, Courbet evokes the myth of Venus born of the sea, but slyly subverts the figure’s pose, which derived from academic convention, by depicting the model’s underarm hair—an element of realism underscored by the almost palpable quality of her flesh.
Francisco de Goya, Grande hazaña! Con muertos! (An heroic feat! With dead men!), from the series Los Desastros de la Guerra (The Disasters of War), 1810-20 (London, England, The British Museum)
Goya’s 82 Disasters of War prints, on which he worked from 1810 until 1820, were etched from red chalk preparatory drawings. They record moments during the Peninsular War and its aftermath while compellingly projecting universally appalling horrors. The initial scenes illustrate the death and destruction Goya witnessed when called to Saragossa in October 1808, each print bearing a succinct comment […]. [The] Disasters could hardly be published while Ferdinand and the Inquisition ruled; they remained unpublished until 1863.
Paul Delaroche, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, 1833 (London, England, The National Gallery)
Jane became queen after the death of her cousin, Edward VI in 1553. As a Protestant, Jane was crowned queen in a bid to shore up Protestantism and keep Catholic influence at bay. The plan didn’t work. Jane’s claim to the crown was much weaker than [that of] Edward VI’s half sister Mary. Mary, a Catholic, had popular support and soon replaced Jane as queen. Lady Jane Grey was executed at Tower Green on 12 February 1554. She was just 16 years old.
In this painting, she is guided towards the execution block by Sir John Brydges, Lieutenant of the Tower. The straw on which the block rests was intended to soak up the victim’s blood. The executioner stands impassive to the right and two ladies in attendance are shown grieving to the left. The painting was exhibited in Paris at the city’s famous Salon in 1834, where it caused a sensation.
Théodore Géricault, Head of a Guillotined Man1818-9 (United States, The Art Institute of Chicago)
For the execution of [The Raft of the Medusa], [Géricault] posed studio models in the predetermined positions and painted all the figures directly from the life. To maintain his emotional tension and remind himself of the horror of his subject, he had medical friends furnish him with portions of cadavers on which he based several studies of Severed Heads and still-lifes composed of Dissected Limbs.
David Hockney, Peter getting out of Nick’s pool, 1966 (Liverpool, England, Walker A.G.)
It is clear that when he moved to [Los Angeles] it was, at least in part, in search of the fantasy that he had formed of a sensual and uninhibited life of athletic young men, swimming pools, palm trees and perpetual sunshine. Undoubtedly Hockney’s popularity can be attributed not simply to his visual wit and panache but also to this appeal to our own escapist instincts.
On his arrival in California, Hockney changed from oil to acrylic paints, applying them as a smooth surface of flat and brilliant colour that helped to emphasize the pre-eminence of the image. The anonymous, uninflected surface of works such as Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool also suggests the snapshot photographs on which they were partly based.
Henry Scott Tuke, August Blue, 1893-94 (London, England, Tate Gallery)
This is one of many pictures Tuke painted of young boys bathing in the open air around Falmouth Harbour in Cornwall. […] Although females had to be covered up, nude male bathing was common at this time and was a popular subject for artists. Tuke celebrates the youthful ideal in this painting; the title evokes a blissful childhood without suggesting it would never end. Hindsight gives added poignancy: these boys would shortly be sent to the battlefields of the First World War.