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.

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