Throughout art history, the beauty of the female form has been a source of tremendous inspiration. But at the start of the 20th century, artists began considering their most revered muse from new, varying perspectives, creating works that invite viewers to explore the contradictions that the female form can embody: at once soft and strong, loving and lonely, exquisite and simple. In effect, artists began creating works that show women as they had not been shown before.
Below, discover artists whose works sparked a new celebration of the female form. These and other master works feature in Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale, taking place on 12 November at 7:00 PM EDT, and Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sale, taking place 13 November at 10:00 AM EDT in New York.
Edgar Degas, Femme prenant un tub, circa 1886
Degas obsessively depicted the female figure throughout his career. As in his portrayals of ballet dancers, Degas preferred to capture his models in a private moment, when they appear fully absorbed in their activity, completely unaware of being observed. The sense of privacy is amplified by the artist’s preferred viewpoint, depicting his subject from the back, her face cast in shadow.
Femme prenant un tub presents Degas’s artfully balanced and proportioned treatment of the woman’s body, making the work among the most accomplished examples of the artist’s celebrated series of bathers. While, for practical reasons, Degas likely staged the bather in this work, Femme prenant un tub recreates the spontaneity of the act and the voyeuristic experience of watching a woman at her toilette.
Edgar Degas, Position de quatrième devant sur la jambe gauche, conceived circa 1885-90 and cast in bronze after 1919
Appearing for the first time in the open market, this iteration of Position de quatrième devant sur la jambe gauche superbly encapsulates Degas’s fascination with the female form in motion. The sculpture captures a dancer in the fourth position, her leg raised en l’air and her arm extended overhead. Though this key ballet position is difficult to perform, Degas found it even more challenging to sketch; the artist must have seen the fourth position performed countless times, but his drawings only include studies of dancers in preparation for the pose, rather than holding it. Sculpture offered a solution to this unique problem; by molding his model in three dimensions, Degas could adequately display the power and poise she possesses.
Auguste Rodin, Cariatide tombée portant sa pierre, agrandissement d’un tiers, conceived circa 1881-82 and carved in 1893-94
In February of 1894, collector Berthe Dumon wrote a letter to Auguste Rodin expressing her excitement and eager anticipation to receive a sculpture she’d commissioned from the artist. Entitled Cariatide tombée portant sa pierre, agrandissement d’un tiers, the sculpture depicts a seated woman, arms intertwined, head resting on her shoulders; from above and below, stone presses against the woman’s form, locking her in an eternal struggle. In her letter, Mme Dumon tells Rodin why she so admires the figure:
“I felt at first sight that between her and I there was a very strong bond; this valiant woman with great pain whom fate may bend but can never crush. I long to see her, to contemplate her here at any time. It will be a great comfort for me, like a confirmation of the necessity of the struggle. Will it be a long, long time before you give it to me? Please tell me, I beg you, roughly when the time will come so that I can limit my impatience.”
ART COLLECTOR BERTHE DUMON WRITING TO AUGUSTE RODIN, FEBRUARY 1894
Cariatide tombée portant sa pierre was viewed by Rodin and his circle as one of his most accomplished and important sculptures. The artist’s interpretation of caryatids – an ancient symbol of a young pious woman historically paired with a male counterpart, Atlas – was wholly novel. Together, the caryatid and Atlas represent the balance of strength and struggle; but seen alone, the fallen caryatid’s pain and resilience come to the fore, confronting the viewer with the singular strength of the female form.
Auguste Rodin, Eve, petite modèle (modèle à la base carrée et aux pieds plats), conceived in 1883
In Eve, petite modèle (modèle à la base carrée et aux pieds plats), Rodin presents the biblical Eve in the moments after she first becomes aware of her own nakedness. The female figure’s fullness and beautifully modeled curves reflect her strength, as well as the vulnerability of this realization. Examples of this model are included in the collections of the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nice, Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Foundation in Los Angeles.
Tamara de Lempicka
Tamara de Lempicka, La Tunique rose, 1927
Beyond her fastidious attention to line and composition, Tamera de Lempicka possessed a talent for portraying women in a sexualized yet empowering way. A dazzling example of Lempicka’s “clear” yet multifaceted work, La Tunique rose presents a rich tableau balanced by piercing lines and sumptuous curves, the model’s figure highlighted by dramatic chiaroscuro and the pop of silky color against exposed skin. The artist’s appreciation of the female form and its power also recalls the once-scandalous nudes of Modgliani, whose works presented women in full possession of their sexuality, often with knowing and solicitous gazes which shocked audiences and authorities at the time.
The luxuriant model in the present work is Rafaëla, one of Lempicka’s most famed muses and lovers; Rafaëla features heavily in the artist’s oeuvre, including in a pendant to the present work entitled La Belle Rafaëla, which is currently held in a private collection.
Tamara de Lempicka, Les Deux amies V, circa 1974
In pioneering her own distinct style, Lempicka absorbed a variety of elements from the avant-garde movements of her time – the geometric aesthetic and fragmented perspective of Cubism, the vibrant color palette of the Fauves, the proportionality of Neo-Classicism, the dynamic lines of the Futurists, the dream-like spatial logic of Surrealism and the razor-sharp draftsmanship and hyper-realism of the Neue Sachlichkeits in central Europe – blending these styles and influences with her love of the Italian Old Masters to extraordinary effect. Les Deux amies V showcases Lempicka’s signature approach and appreciation for the female form. As art historian Magdeleine Dayot notes:
“[Lempicka’s paintings are a] curious blend of extreme modernism and classical purity that attracts and surprises, and provokes, perhaps even before conquering completely, a sort of cerebral struggle where these very different tendencies fight with each other until the moment the gaze grasps the great harmony that reigns in these opposites”
MAGDELEINE DAYOT QUOTED IN GIOIA MORI, ‘TAMARA DE LEMPICKA: THE QUEEN OF MODERN, MILAN’, 2011, P. 21
Pablo Picasso, Nus, 1934
Acrowning achievement of motion, energy and manipulation of the human form, Pablo Picasso’s Nus succinctly synthesizes the artist’s groundbreaking achievements of the late 1920s and early 1930 into one colorful, dynamic canvas. Here, in the seclusion of his new country home of Boisgeloup, three nudes leap, dance, jump and intertwine in a semi-abstracted landscape, their biomorphic figures imbued with fertility, sexuality and grace. While the figures are related to Marie-Thérèse, Picasso’s lover and muse, they also embody acrobats and myths, two recurring themes in the artist’s oeuvre.
The treatment of the human forms in Nus results from a period in Picasso’s artistic progression that found him breaking down the body to its barest essentials, a jumble of shapes that echo the curves of breasts and the angles of bones. In Nus, these interweaving forms became neither male nor female, transforming into wholly new beings. When this work was exhibited in 1978 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the curators described this evocative effect:
“This orgy of octupus-like [sic], amphibious nudes evolved from Picasso’s series of bathers begun in 1927 […] As in many of Picasso’s bathers there is an ambiguity about the gender of these creatures who have breasts, but whose heads and tentacular appendages seem phallic as they turn in upon themselves. John Golding… rightly describes these figures as ‘predatory marine forms,’ and in this respect the painting has much in common with Picasso’s sexually threatening bathers.”
NEW YORK, SOLOMON R. GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM, THE EVELYN SHARP COLLECTION, 1978, N.N., ILLUSTRATED IN COLOR IN THE CATALOGUE (TITLED ‘SPRING AT BOISGELOUP’)
Pablo Picasso, Homme enlevant une femme, 1933
An amalgam of mythological allusion and personal metaphor, the rhapsodic Homme enlevant une femme comes from a distinctive and momentous period in Picasso’s career. His mistress, Marie-Thérèse had recently recovered from a water-borne illness which had plagued her for months; the incident seemingly intensified Picasso’s passions, inspiring him to create many works depicting Marie-Thérèse as a nymph and bather in the throes of swimming, drowning or being saved.
The protagonist in Homme enlevant une femme is often identified as Picasso’s preferred alter-ego, the part-man, part-bull Minotaur, while the female figure is likely inspired by Marie-Thérèse. The scene replaces the violence of the Minotaur myth with heroism, recasting true events with Picasso as the indulgent yet godlike savior of one of his most beloved companions.
Aristide Maillol, Île-de-France, Conceived in 1907; this version conceived between 1921-25; this example cast during the artist’s lifetime.
With an athletic build and petite facial features, the bronze Île-de-France is Maillol’s celebrated personification of his country’s capital city. As the embodiment of the strength and vigor for which this important region is known, Île-de-France is perfectly proportioned, and her pose beautifully captures the force of her movement as she rises out of Seine. In this version, the female figure is portrayed with one toe broaching the boundary of her base, as if to suggest her limitless potential.
During the 1930s and early 1940s, a number of maison closes operated legally in Paris, including an elegant establishment called The Sphinx. At The Sphinx, artists and intellectuals of the time including Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre and Alberto Giacometti gathered to discuss their work and enjoy each other’s company. When in 1946, the Loi Marthe Richard closed the nearly 180 maison closes operating in Paris, Giacometti was particularly perturbed, as he notes in his seminal text The Dream, the Sphinx and the Death of T….
To assuage his grief over the closure of The Sphinx, the artist turned to his work, creating paintings, drawings and sculptures inspired by his recollections of the establishment. In a series of works, Giacometti took inspiration from one memorable scene at The Sphinx:
“[S]everal nude women seen at The Sphinx while I was seated at the end of the room. The distance that separated us (the polished floor), which seemed impassable despite my desire to cross it, impressed me as much as the women did.”
(QUOTED IN ALBERTO GIACOMETTI [EXHIBITION CATALOGUE], THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK; ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO, CHICAGO; LOS ANGELES COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART, LOS ANGELES & SAN FRANCISCO MUSEUM OF ART, SAN FRANCISCO, 1965-66, P. 60)
The following three sculptures are interpretations of this singular memory; in each, four women stand on pedestals, separated from the artist over a short, but seemingly impassable distance.
The female form fascinated Giacometti over the course of his career, but it is in the works of the 1950s that the dramatic potential of this motif is most ambitiously interpreted. No longer interested in re-creating physical likeness in his sculptures, the artist began working from memory, seeking to capture the identity of his model beyond the physical reality of the human form. In these works, the haunting isolation of the women is explored ensemble and without compromising the striking, visual impact of each figure.
Alberto Giacometti, Quatre figurines sur piédestal (figurines de londres, version A), conceived in 1950-65; the base cast in 1950 and the figurines cast in 1966.
In Quatre figurines sur piédestal (figurines de londres, version A), the tall pedestal the sculpture is set on conveys the distance between the artist and the women, while the sloped trapezoid beneath their feet represents the vertiginous “polished floor” which further emphasized this dislocation of space and remoteness of the subjects.
Alberto Giacometti, Quatre figurines, 1950
In plaster form, the stark nakedness of the Quatre figurines is made clear; the present work, along with the previous bronze and the following ink subject, offer incredible insight into Giacometti’s obsessive artistic process. But in plaster, the lithe nature of Giacometti’s figures comes to the fore, offering a new angle of interpretation.
Alberto Giacometti, Rue de l’Échaudé (Quatre figurines sur piédestal), 1952
Rue de l’Échaudé (Quatre figurines sur piédestal) is a masterful drawing of the standing female figure. In swirls of ink, the four nude women exert an ethereal power and loneliness; along with the walking man, the standing female figure represented the absolute distillation of Giacometti’s existentialist perspective. Discussing the importance of these forms, Christian Klemm notes
“With these weightless elongated figures, Giacometti extended an age-old tradition of imaging man and woman as symbolic representations of the elemental. The work limited to the core of human existence is symptomatic of a post-war era that was seeking out grounds for a new start, however minimal these might be. The lofty verticality of Giacometti’s figures, combined with their exquisite fragility, creates a tension with the base materiality of their composition that works to reflect the human condition caught between dignity, vulnerability and the ultimate fallibility.”
(C. KLEMM, ALBERTO GIACOMETTI (EXHIBITION CATALOGUE), KUNSTHAUS, ZURICH, 2001, P. 150).