Sunday, November 21, 2010

America's first public nude painting 1794

Danaë and the Shower of Gold 1787 by Adolph Ulric Wertmüller (1751-1811)

Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller emigrated to Philadelphia in May of 1794 with his collection of personal paintings. He was helped through customs by fellow artist Charles Willson Peale and Rembrandt Peale. Wertmüller's large painting Danaë and the Shower of Gold 1787 proved controversial for prudish 18th century America. Danaë was the first image of a nude to be publicly exhibited in America. Danaë is a character in Greek mythology who was locked up by her father to safeguard her virtue. Zeus, however, still manages to visit her in the shape of a golden shower. Wertmüller knew little about the city of brotherly loves conservatism, Upon his arrival to Philadelphia and the exhibit of his nude masterpiece Wertmüller decided that living in the country outside the big city was more suited for him.

As Philadelphia became more aware about fine art during this period. Curiosity about the scandalous Danaë encouraged Wertmüller to bring her out to the city. Wertmüller had rented a room in a small house on Cherry street, He placed the bottom of the painting on 2 carpenter's sawhorses and held it at the top of the frame by 2 ropes. Rembrandt Peale offered to reinstall it for a better exhibition and he upholstered the room and also the floor with a green baize, Hung the painting so that natural daylight would illuminate the surface and not the viewers eyes, He placed mirrors in the room so that upon entering the room the viewer could not see the painting until in the proper position for a full view. They charged twenty-five cents to view the painting $5-8 dollars in today's money.

The painting elicited many comments. William Dunlap wrote; "His Danae is his greatest and most splendid production. It is indeed his great work; and for that very reason it is on every account, to be regretted, that both in the subject and the style of execution it offends alike against pure taste and the morality of the art. Latrobe wrote; It is a foolish thing in an artist to chuse a subject which he either dare not exhibit, or if he does expose it, which sacrifices his moral character at the shrine of his skill. And Charles Willson Peale confided to Latrobe, "Such subjects may be good to show artist, but in my opinion not very proper for exhibition. I like no art which can raise a blush on a lady's cheek. The painting continued to be a topic of discussion in eastern America.

The admission fees made during this tour made Wertmüller a wealthy man. William Dunlap wrote again, " Our ladies and gentlemen only flock together to see pictures of naked figures when the subject is scriptural and called moral. Wertmüller made at least one copy of the painting in a smaller format, which Harriet Manigault saw when visiting her friends the Lyle sisters at the Woodlands in 1814. She wrote; "There is a small Danae in Uncle James' room, which is also very correctly concealed by curtain. The attitude of it is frightful; She is on the point of receiving Jupiter in the shape of a shower of gold."

Wertmüller's Danaë was not just a nude but was a erotic nude showing flesh in an overtly sexual manner. A nude would have been shocking in it self but a highly sexual nude such as Danaë was a feeding frenzy on moral order in 18th century America. Up to this time the average American conservative public was not aware that this kind of highly sexual art existed in the 18th century. Even the exhibition of casts of Classical figures at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts was subject to prejudice about Propriety, and men and women viewed them on separate days. Peale wrote to Jefferson in 1811: "I think we should guard against familiarizing our Citizens to sights which may excite a blush in the most modest. The artist may always find subjects to show his excellence of coloring etc., without choosing such as may offend modesty. Therefore at our last Exhibition at the Academy of Arts, I advised and procured some old pictures of Nudities to be put out of sight. Wertmüller's Danaë is posed on a gold gilt Roman classical couch in a receiving position with her knees raised and legs open happily welcoming the explosion of gold from the golden shower of Zeus. Her friend Eros is to her right holding out the cloth to catch the golden shower as well as happily welcoming Zeus with a open hand gesture

The famous powder on shoulder Portrait of George Washington 1794 by Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller

Wertmüller was not above controversy as he was run out of Paris for his casual depiction of French Queen Marie Antoinette exhibited in Paris in 1785. Like Peale and Gilbert Stuart (another great American portraitist of the period), Wertmüller was given the opportunity to paint George Washington from life and, like them, he hoped a demand for replicas would produce a steady income. Washington, aware of his symbolic importance, complied with many requests for portraits, and posed for Wertmuller in Independence Hall in 1794. In this likeness, executed in a strongly modeled academic style, Wertmüller depicts Washington as statesman rather than general. The midnight blue silk velvet coat and cascading lace jabot document the president's love of fine dress and place him in the company of the wealthy in America, international social and political elites he routinely met in the elegant Philadelphia homes of the McKeans and Powels. One of the reasons I love Wertmüller's portrait of Washington is he dared to painted the dusting of white hair powder on the father of America's shoulders from his freshly powdered hair. Something the Peale's would not do even if they saw it.

Wertmüller was married to Elizabeth Henderson, granddaughter of noted early American painter Gustavus Hesselius, on January 8, 1801, and two years later retired to a plantation in Claymont, Delaware, where he lived the final years of his life. He died near Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania.
Danae was a legendary princess of Argos. Her father, Acrisius, who had been warned by an oracle that her son would one day kill him, had decided to keep her locked her in a bronze tower away from any male company.
Zeus, who loved Danae, turned himself into a shower of gold and came to the despondent princess through the roof. The shower of gold poured down into her lap; as a result she had a son. When Acrisius discovered Perseus, he locked both mother and son in a chest, and set it adrift on the sea. Eventually Danae and Perseus were rescued.
Later, after many adventures (see Perseus and Andromeda), Perseus returned to Acrisius' kingdom, where he fulfilled the prophecy of the oracle by accidentally killing the king while throwing the discus.

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