Great Works: Reclining Nude (1844/5), Jean-François Millet

Musee D'Orsay, Paris

"Flesh is the reason oil paint was invented," said the painter Willem de Kooning. If it sounds like truth at once, that's probably because it makes you forget how many ways we can feel about flesh, and how many ways oil paint can do it. It can render a body as solid as stone. It can make it as springy as rubber and as sharp as wood. These different fleshes and more are in the gift of oil painting.

But De Kooning's saying has a more exclusive sense. It makes you think of oil-paint in the raw: the liquid going down straight out of the pot or the tube, or just dried enough to have grown its own skin. It makes you think of something squashy, squeezy, sloppy, squelchy, sticky. And it makes you think that flesh is like that. Of course, in some oil paintings it is like that: in the paintings of Titian and Rubens and Rembrandt and Velazquez, for example, and in De Kooning's own.

The De Kooning doctrine, that's to say, favours a particular ideal of flesh. Flesh, the best and fleshiest kind of flesh, is not a defined and resistant substance. It is something giving and dissolving. It's the kind of flesh where borders break down and bodies melt and meld in sensation. It's the kind of flesh where mind is dispersed and matter takes on a life of its own.

And you might rephrase de Kooning, and say: not that oil paint was invented for the sake of flesh, but that this kind of flesh was invented by oil paint. This is where the truth of his words lies. Oil paint, like other kinds of paint, can do flesh in various ways. But only oil paint, with its fluidity, malleability, dissolvability, can do flesh like this. It has been the flesh of women that has received this treatment.

One of the lesser-known scenes from the history of the nude is Jean-François Millet's Reclining Nude. It is also one of the least specific, in terms of its subject and its situation. Who, where, why? Goddess, courtesan, prostitute, model, girlfriend? Who knows? The usual facts and pretexts are omitted. In other words, it's an especially pure piece of flesh painting.

The picture consists of a body and a showcase. Wherever it is, the setting is some kind of curtained box bed. We're shown no more than this bed, and there's nothing in the way of fittings or props or even any of the bed's wooden architecture.

Apart from an area of shadowy background wall, the scene is all fabric, and we have only these two stuffs, two colours: the red hangings and the white bedding. The suggestion is something opulent or shabby opulent. The drapes are probably velvet. The linen is possibly fine. Together they create a little theatre, a containing space and displaying space, whose curtains part to reveal...

A woman, naturally. She is probably asleep. She is half curled up, and her back is turned. Her skin is fair. Her hair is black, with two curly tresses falling across her neck. But the picture is hardly drawn to her head. Its centre of interest is elsewhere, just below its actual centre, where the main light shines on her rising hip and glowing bum. Or that would be a realistic description. But what the picture actually shows, as opposed to what it implies, is this. There is a body that has no face, no arms, no legs. You see a back and a bum, glimpses of shoulders, the start of one thigh, and that's all. It's a body that falls short of the basic human structure, with its torso and head and limbs. The curtains part to reveal simply a piece of flesh.

It's on the edge of being featureless. It's human matter, but without any sense of anatomy, articulation, action, almost without animation. It's a bit of anonymous tissue, which is recognisable as human because of its human curves and skin. It's a lovely slug. And its peep-show display gives this slug a sexiness that is a little troubling.

On the other hand, its fabric surroundings also save it from real (or surreal) obscenity. The slug-body just isn't separate enough to become acutely queasy. Its flesh is made up of soft plump blobs, of folds and tucks and creases, and it lies among more soft, plump blobs etc. The likeness is obvious. Between flesh and bedding there isn't much difference in terms of shapes or texture. The bum crack is continuous with a fold in the sheet. This body is absorbed into the pillows and mattress. It could be an extra pile, with only a difference of colour. (In black and white or sepia reproduction, the distinction between body and bed is very slight.)

So, this nude is twice collapsed. First, its anatomy is reduced into a blob of flesh. Then this flesh blob is absorbed into its physical environment. It's a distinctive oil paint effect, this melding and blurring of forms, or rather, the way a sense of general substance overrides separate objects.

The painting's colour plays its own part in this process. There are three dominant colours, the red and white and the pink of the flesh. Their effects are simple enough. The red and white have their associations, powerful and contrasting. Red says bloody, internal orifices. White says purity. And then red and white meet and mix into pink. Flesh is their product. The body is embraced again into bedclothes. Through colour, again the paint possesses what it paints.

Millet's Reclining Nude is a small demonstration of the philosophy of oil painting. It wasn't only a way of doing flesh that it invented. It was a way of doing the world, and it goes like that line of Dylan Thomas: "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower..." Other paints have their tendencies, but none has the same power. Oil painting is a force that drives the world it paints, and makes it into an oil paint world. It is not so much a life-force as a universal matter-force, which manifests itself in everything it touches and brings everything together. It doesn't have to do this, no, but it's very much inclined this way. No wonder William Blake hated it.

About the artist

Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) painted a few naked figures. Mainly he painted peasants and the land. His scenes are generally solemn and monumental. Sometimes their mood is piously idyllic, as in 'The Angelus', his most famous picture, where a couple stop their work and stand in prayer. Sometimes it's heroic, as in 'The Sower', striding forward across the fields. Sometimes, as in 'The Gleaners' and 'The Man with the Hoe', they stress backbreaking toil. Though taken for a socialist, Millet did not believe in progress or improvement – rather, in the eternal tragedy of the peasant's lot. He created archetypes, in bold and simple iconic forms, very suited to reproduction. His dumb, simple and sturdy figures are the grandparents of those solid and thick-limbed bodies that become such a fixture of later modern art – Gauguin's south-sea islanders, Picasso's statuesque fatties, Leger's robot-figures. His late landscapes, like 'Crows in Winter', create a bare, desolate form of painting that point to something like minimalism.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas