Wednesday, February 2, 2011

It's a Beautiful Thing: Jeune Homme Nu Assis

I’m sure that none of you have ever watched Martha Stewart’s show (throat clear).  But if you had, you would know that she used to have these segments where she would talk about or explain some gadget or another and would then say, “It’s a good thing.”  I don’t know if she still does that or not; I swore off Martha once she became a hardened felon.

But I thought I’d use a variation of Martha’s phrase to periodically write about things that I find beautiful.  (I’ll probably shorten it, however, to just “Beauty”.) And what better place to start than the image that I chose to represent my online identity and to serve as a background for my blog:  Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin’s gorgeous painting entitled Jeune Homme Nu Assis au Bord de la Mer (Young Male Nude Seated Beside the Sea).

Love at First Sight

I first fell in love with this painting while I was a missionary serving in Paris.  At the time I was there, the exchange rate was particularly favorable to Americans, and on most P-Days, I was off to see the treasures of the Louvre or the Impressionist masterpieces at the Musée d’Orsay, or otherwise sight-seeing somewhere in or around the “City of Light,” where art was wherever one turned.

As I have written elsewhere, it was while I was in Paris that I realized that my attraction to men was never going to go away and that I came the closest to actually embracing my gay identity and deciding to live life as a gay man once I returned from my mission. This was in no small part attributable to my interactions with an older male member of the Church who I knew was gay, and he seemed to know that I was gay, yet we never discussed it.  There was an affinity between us, and we both recognized it.  He was a lover of culture, and it was because of him that I attended a ballet at the Palais Garnier (Opera) (where he knew one of the lead male dancers), joined him and his friends for dinner on the Ile-Saint-Louis, and followed his advice concerning what works of art I should see at which museums. 

It was during this period that I saw Flandrin’s painting, and it came to symbolize for me my hidden gay identity.  The young man was so beautiful and erotic in a pure sort of way; the lines so pleasing; the scene so peaceful.  I purchased a post card of the painting which I taped into my journal, only to rip it out later during one of my paroxysms of guilt and fear as I tried to strip my journal of anything that might reveal my true nature.

I never forgot the painting, however, and it was only natural for me that, once I finally came out and then started this blog, that this painting should play a key role in representing my on-line identity.

The Artist

Jean-Hyppolite Flandrin was born in Lyon, France in 1809.  He was one of three brothers, each of whom became a painter.  Hippolyte (pictured left, above) and his younger brother Paul (pictured right) trained under sculptors and artists in Lyon throughout their teen years and also learned the art of lithography.  After attending the École des Beaux-Arts in Lyon for several years, the two brothers left for Paris in 1829, where they both enrolled in the studio of J. A. D. Ingres, who became not only their instructor but their friend for life.

Flandrin’s first big break came in 1832, when he won the Grand Prix de Rome for his painting, Theseus Recognized by his Father (pictured above).  It was during his next five years in Rome that Hippolyte painted most of his works based on mythology, as well as his most famous work, Jeune Homme Nu. 

Upon his return to Paris, Flandrin’s emphasis shifted to religious subjects, and he was engaged for the next two decades in painting murals in a number of churches throughout France.  He died in Rome on 21 March 1864.

His Work

For a gay interpretation of Flandrin and his works, I quote the following from an article by James Smalls in the online Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Culture:

“In art history, the considerable accomplishments of Hippolyte Flandrin are often overshadowed by those of his mentor, J. A. D. Ingres (1780-1867). Flandrin adhered closely to Ingres's focus on purity and perfection of line ... However, Flandrin's studies of male youth distinguish him from his master, especially insofar as these works are richly and suggestively homoerotic ...

“Many of his mythological scenes concentrate on the youthful male nude as aesthetic object. Flandrin himself claimed that the classical beauty of his work was born out of his knowledge of Homer, Plutarch, Tacitus, and Virgil. The majority of his mythological scenes, produced between 1833 and 1836 [i.e., during his time in Italy], feature secluded youthful nude males situated in calm and still environments.

“Most of his figures express ‘a perfect peace’ and mix Virgilian lyricism with a striking realism in the detailing of head, hands, and feet. In some of his works, he exploits compositional devices that cover the genital area but also focus attention on it. The homoerotic overtones of these works are profound. One of these, Polytes, Son of Priam Observing the Movements of the Greeks Near Troy (1833-1834; Saint-Étienne, Musée d'Art et d'Histoire) (pictured above) shows a nude male youth sitting in profile atop a classically decorated pedestal. He looks out of the picture and into the distance. The prominent curve of the youth's back and the formal focus on the interplay between form and line communicate a quality of hushed beauty and frozen purity.

“The work is implicitly erotic and imbued with a quality of meditative spirituality. One outstanding detail is the hyperreal rendering of the young boy's exposed pubic hairs. This detail seems to be at odds with the idealized quality of the rest of the painting. Flandrin thus blends the real and the ideal, the erotic and the contemplative, a poeticized romanticism and an incongruous realism, and classicized form and pious emotion.

“Flandrin's most popular and recognizable work is his Figure d'Étude (Nude Youth Seated on a Rock, 1835-1836; Paris, Louvre). Typical of Flandrin, this work uses the nude male figure as a showcase for the stylistic purity of line, modeling, chiaroscuro, and color. These features are underscored by a mysterious, meditative calm provoked by a moonlit seascape. The youth's body and the environment work together to evoke an aura of poetic lyricism. The work has been hailed as an exquisite example of visualized spirituality and beauty. The painting is distinguished not only by a hyperreal rendering of the boy's arms, hands, and feet, but also by its geometric composition, which consists of an equilateral triangle within a circle, which may have mystical significance.”

It’s a beautiful thing.  One with special meaning to me.



  1. Great post, as always. Although, I gotta say, I really like Martha the felon... something innately satisfying for me to know that the woman on the screen who is teaching me how to make shortbread, also spent time in prison.

  2. @Jeff - Yes, you've got a point there. Of course, her daughter's show, "Whatever, Martha," adds texture (and a lot of laughter) to the Martha mystique. :)

  3. Love the painting with realism and idealism as well as the photograph at the bottom. Thanks for the mini art-history course!

    And, Martha Stewart seems to get better with age. I couldn't stand her before she went to prison: too perfect and goodie goodie. Now, I actually enjoy her! Must be that rebel in me:)

  4. Great post! Fine art, poetry, and music subtly yet powerfully express what mere words cannot. I believe they reveal, and resonate with, the divine nature within.

    It's a good thing.