Thedepiction of the nude female model by a male artist in oil painting has played asignificant role in the western tradition over the last 500 years. The oilpainting of the female nude is subject to the artist’s interpretation of herform. She is affected by the artist’s desire for his model, as well as his artand she is torn between the artist’s inability to be both lover and painter. Hubert Damisch’s “The Underneaths of Painting” helps the reader understandthe importance of the male painter’s imaging of the female form. By analyzingBalzac’s Unknown Masterpiece, Damisch uncovers several tangents to the uniquerelationship between artist’s and the women they create on canvas.
Balzactells a tale of the truth behind the creative process of an artist and the wayhe perceives his vision when finally completed in oil. Poussin is a youngpainter who doesn’t quite understand how the concepts of desire and love willaffect the perception of his model, and lover, Gilette. He soon embarks on ajourney that takes him underneath the paint: “Under the paint and as its?truth’, instead and in the place of the so-called picture, the exchangeassuming its last true face: a woman for a picture and a woman for what forms(or ought to) its subject. It is at this point in the picture where thesubterranean, archaeological presence of the woman reveals itself, thatsomething is given to see, something that can be spoken, that can be named,something moreover alive, delectable, a foothold for desire; in a word,something that looks at us unlike the inexpressible wall of paint that holds itcaptive,” (Damisch 202). There are many layers of paint put on to one canvas,but the image isn’t visible right away, she must grow through thebrushstrokes. When the last brush of paint touches the canvas, her beauty isrevealed to the eye.
The artist has created his masterpiece and she can bediscussed like a real woman now; she has a name, she has the personality theartist has given her which makes her come alive, she is so real that observersfeel the need to touch her and she looks right back. The paint from which shecame is an afterthought and because Poussin is hungry for a piece that canaccomplish all this, he chooses his work over his love. Damisch utilizesBalzac’s tale to define the position of the artist’s heart. It is inevitablethat every painter that is dedicated to his work cannot be capable of lovinganything so much as the act of expressing one’s self through paint. He fallsin love with his creation and there can be no room for a tangible love.
Here isDamisch: “. . . one has to choose between being a lover and a painter. Poussinwill be assailed by doubt at the thought that another person could look atGilette, and look at her as only he was allowed to see her: naked.
But thisdoubt will soon vanish: the young man will forget his mistress, he will desireonly to be a painter, he will see his art and nothing else,” (Damisch 200). Poussin has not fully recognized the intensity of the connection that an artisthas with his work and doesn’t realize that Gilette is what’s holding himback. Since he shares his love with her and his work, Poussin cannot capturetrue realism in the females he depicts. Although he loves her at this point andcouldn’t possibly think of letting anyone see Gilette, Poussin will discoverthat to let her pose for other artists isn’t as shattering a suggestion whenhe creates the nude that will lend his heart solely to the act of expression.
The artist will then transfer his feelings of obsession for Gilette to his workand he will be able to love no other with the same intensity that he enjoys hiswork. Damisch questions the role of desire in the conversion of the female modelinto the artist’s Venus. He asks: “What of the working of desire in itsrelation to the desire of the other?” and then goes on to report that:”. .
. we are amongst painters who only have eyes for painting. As far as Giletteis concerned she has no part in their commerce: she doesn’t look at thepainting, but sees only the painters. . . Poussin, while drawing her, was no doubtlooking at her, but was not thinking about her.
. . She does not say: withoutdesiring her. For it was his desire that she should model for him, yet a desirewhich did not necessarily pass without explanation, at least for the one whowas, as it were its passing object. Gilette might have added. .
. when it begs fora look: ?You never look at me from the place which I see you. ‘. .
. it is onlyin painting that such a request had meaning, and one may at one and the sametime. . . find a woman beautiful and desire her, at the place from where she islooking at us, on the canvas,” (Damisch 200). The artist has desired to attaina beautiful, inspirational model to develop his masterpiece- he doesn’t desirethe physical form of his muse.
Gilette may argue that Poussin doesn’t want herfor the same reasons that she wants him, but she does not understand that thiscomplaint can only be made by the female nude on the canvas: the test of truedesire on the artist’s part is if he can look into his painting and he feelsthe need to caress the canvas- then he has perfected his image. Poussin mistakesthe desire he has for Gilette to model for him for an emotional desire and whenshe does she can see he isn’t looking on her with a lustful gaze- his eye isclinical in nature. To comprehend the importance of the relationship amongartists and their oil paintings of the female nude, one must understand thesignificance of each one of these factors. For centuries artists have tried tomaster the conception of the artist and his work, but this task seems fleeting:How can one artist represent the situation of every painter? Because this featis impossible, we arrive at a variety of works that all try to express the sametopic, but end up drastically different. What is true to all of therepresentations of the female nude by the male painter is that she is alwayssubject to the desire and love of her creator.