The male nude was a subject of lifelong importance to Duncan Grant. In his youth he was first attracted to the work of Edward Burne-Jones, whose paintings are predominated by idealised male and female nudity. A number of early works by Grant, pre-dating his development as a leading Post-Impressionist painter, include the male nude. An early drawing from his years of study in Paris depicts a full-figure nude sculpture of St John the Baptist by Rodin (c. 1906, St Peter’s College, Oxford), and Arcadian Scene (c. 1909, Charleston) includes unclothed male and female figures. Some of Grant’s most successful early portraits also included male nudity, as was the case with his half-length depiction of the famed mountaineer George Mallory (1912, National Portrait Gallery).
Seated Male Nude depicts an unidentified sitter and was executed during Grant’s experimental Post-Impressionist phase. The status of his male nude sitters varied throughout his career. Though he pursued intimate homosexual relationships with many sitters, including Toni Asserati in the 1930s and Paul Roche after the Second World War, he also hired models in a more conventional, professionalised arrangement. It is reasonable to assume that the man in this painting was hired to sit for the work, as well as for another, closely related painting which depicts the same person in a complementary view showing his back (fig. 1).
These two paintings behave as pendants and together they show a single figure in the round. The concept behind the two works suggest Grant’s interest in studying male musculature at this period. Though his interest in the male nude was consistently underpinned by same-sex desire, he also explored a wide variety of approaches to painting in the years before the Great War. He was stimulated by visits to the studios of Matisse and Picasso in Paris as well as the Post-Impressionist exhibitions at the Grafton Galleries in 1911 and 1912-13, which were organised by his friend Roger Fry, and his work grew rapidly in confidence and versatility. Aside from his ‘leopard manner’ of broken brushstrokes, apparent in the Mallory portrait of 1912, Grant developed a more naturalistic approach which he used in this Seated Male Nude. In some areas such as the biceps, the contours of the figure have been outlined to give the figure definition. More generally though, the figure is modelled using contrasting areas of subtly graded tone which range across green, lilac and grey. The brushwork here is undemonstrative and the painting’s surface is flat, smoothly brushed, and largely unbroken.
Of the two paintings that depict this sitter, the frontal view – Seated Male Nude – is the more finished example. The back view is significantly unresolved in the lower left-hand corner where the sitter’s leg is indicated but left incomplete. Conversely, in the back view, the interior setting is more developed, with ceiling coving and the corner of the room clearly indicated. In Seated Male Nude, an unresolved area of white runs diagonally across the top of the picture behind the figure’s head, and this may also have been suggested by coving. Grant’s pictures from this period make prominent use of this pictorial device, bringing background objects and surfaces to the fore and making them occupy the same plane as the main subject. Both paintings use the same folded textile to protect the sitter’s modesty. This is probably mattress ticking, most likely of French origin to tell from the pattern of parallel red and green stripes. Variations on this pattern were available from the late nineteenth century and continued to be in fashion through the 1930s (fig. 2).
Seated Male Nude was first owned by Paul Roche, an intimate friend of Grant’s who lived with him at Charleston intermittently after the Second World War. The scholar Simon Watney first saw the painting hanging at Charleston, when he was able to make slide reproductions of the work, and then again later at Roche’s home in Mallorca.
Paul Roche Bloomsbury Workshop, London, acquired directly from the above Private Collection Private Collection
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