Thursday, February 26, 2015

William Breakspeare, Nude at a Table

William Breakspeare, Nude at a Table
7.25 x 10.5 in.

William Breakspeare (1855-1914) was an English artist from Birmingham.  His father was a flower painter in the japanning business (a type of lacquer finishing used on furniture and decorative items) and Breakspeare was himself apprenticed to japanners.  He transitioned into painting and became involved with the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, to which he was elected as a full member in 1884.  He spent time in Paris, beginning in 1879, and moved to London in 1881, often exhibiting at the Royal Academy.  Breakspeare's work shows a wide range of influence, including the Pre-Raphaelites and Orientalism, but he also worked in more traditional modes of portraiture and genre painting.  Breakspeare seems to repeatedly find interest in painting women in traditional role of female beauty and sexuality, but showing their vulnerability and sometimes discomfort, thus calling into question the meaning of this style of art. We can see this in The Reluctant Pianist and The Mermaid, and even his take on Venus.  This theme is certainly quite present in Nude at a Table, in fact it dominates the painting.  This girl appears quite young and uncertain, even uncomfortable.  Breakspeare does not shy away from that discomfort, but embraces it and portrays it effectively, creating a powerful and engaging painting.  In terms of technique, this piece is successful because of Breakspeare's smooth brushwork that appears consistent throughout the painting.  His strokes are molded and deliberate, but also gentle and relaxed.  From the rough background, to the carefully shaped objects on the table, the drapery of the cloth, and the smooth rendering of the girl's body, Breakspeare's hand is even and effective. The girl's face is rendered beautifully and with intense emotion.  With her small features and sympathetic eyes, Breakspeare makes us feel great sympathy for this young model.  The girl's pose tells us a great deal about her feelings; her body is turned away and largely hidden from view, with only her head turned toward the painter.  Her hands are raised as though she wants to hide her face in them, and has only turned so that we may see her anguish.  This approach calls into question the relationship of female subject to the male painter (and viewer).  If this model was so uncomfortable with posing nude, is it right that Breakspeare ask this of her and subject her to the male gaze?  Perhaps the girl's anguish is posed by Breakspeare as well, intended to make a point about the nature of the male gaze in the history of painting.  While we may never know the truth of this situation, the beautiful painting raises these important questions and prompts us to reconsider the subjectivity of this nameless model.

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