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Demure, conservative nudes entice American collectors: though both artists and collectors are drawn to the female form, the American public seems to prefer a quiet sensuality in paintings and fine art prints that portray the human body

Demure, conservative nudes entice American collectors: though both artists and collectors are drawn to the female form, the American public seems to prefer a quiet sensuality in paintings and fine art prints that portray the human body

Julie Keller

To both artists and collectors, the female figure is a work of art. The classic curve of the hip and the sensuous cleft of a breast are inspirational to artists and beautiful to collectors. For this reason, nudes, particularly females nudes, grace the walls of a multitude of galleries and museums and are sought after by art lovers at all levels of the market. Though the appreciation of nudes is at an all-time high, the American marketplace does seem to have its limits and prefers what Herb Spiers of Selected International Fine Arts (SIFA) in New York calls “the demure nude.”

“From my experience, it is easier to sell demure nudes, which usually means they are seen from the back or partially covered,” he explained. SIFA carries the work of four artists who paint nudes–Joan Marti, Felipe Santamans, Christian Gafflard and Nydia Lozano–and the company’s most sellable works in the American market can be classified as “conservative.”

Lisa J. Cook of London Contemporary Art, which publishes nudes from Chen Bolan, Avataneo, Roy Fairchild, Benfield and others, added that this is particularly true in the fine art print market. She said her company has also found greater success when selling nudes that are softer, painted from a rear view or discreetly covered. “When producing art in the limited-edition market, where the appeal is expected to be more broad than the originals market, you will find it is easier to sell some nudes over others,” she explained.

“The back, veiled nude is probably the best-selling nude,” agreed Steve Hoffman of Behr-Thyssen, publisher of artists Will Kissmer and Oliviero Masai, acclaimed painters of the female figure.

Decorative Expressions President Robert Harris, whose company wholesales original nude paintings from artists Roman Frances and Mallol, said he finds that even in the originals realm, American collectors generally look for nudes that are “very elegant, very soft and not suggestive or overly sexual.”

An Explanation of Attitudes

There are many theories revolving around Americans’ attraction to demure, rather than explicit nudes, most of them revolving around this country’s prevalent conservative nature. “America was born in a puritan culture where nudity was understood as the devil’s playground,” said Spiers. “Hence, a cultural prohibition still exists to this day.”

Beth Blankenship of Gregory Editions, publisher of several artists who paint nudes, including Domenech, Douglas Hofmann, Mark Spain, Joy Kirton-Smith and Sarah Jane Szikora, said she also sees a more limited exposure of nudes in galleries “due to the more conservative attitudes in the U.S. about nudity”. She said she sees a distinct difference in the acceptance of nudes in Europe versus America.

Many publishers and artists find this attitude disconcerting, particularly in light of the sex-laden advertising and film productions that are prevalent in our culture. “I see a double standard in the West,” said Fred Szabries, an artist and art dealer who sells his work and others’ through his company, Studio Szabries. “The nude and the figure is portrayed sexually to sell products, but it is deemed inappropriate as art. I think it’s a case of the current rampant political correctness that is constricting all facets of society.”

Regardless of the reason for the attraction to the “demure nude,” as opposed to more explicit images, there is indeed a popular market for the work and will continue to be because the human body is considered to be an art form by enough collectors of fine art and a multitude of artists. “Despite the primarily contemporary Western view that the nude can be offensive as a form of decoration, it has been used through the ages and therefore is considered acceptable, providing it is not explicit,” explained Szabries.

An Artistic Appeal

For artists, the beauty and complexity of the human figure is the prime impetus for painting it. Perfectly capturing the light reflecting off cavernous flesh or rendering the exact angle of a rounded shoulder is perhaps one of the most difficult, yet most rewarding journeys a painter can embark upon. “The human figure delights the artist to paint,” explained Hoffman. “It is very, very difficult to paint the human form. The artists find it challenging, much more challenging than painting a still life or a landscape.”

Spiers agreed that the technical complexity of painting the figure is perhaps the main reason artists choose to do so. He also thinks artists are attracted to the mysterious sexuality of the naked body. “Maurice Merleau-Ponty said the human body is the integument of the human spirit,” he said. “In painting nudes, the artist attempts to bring to the viewer’s eye that special mystery of humanness that lies below the skin.”

A More Seasoned Buyer

The truth is, not every art collector is an afficionado of nudes. The sexuality inherent in nude paintings is a bit off-putting for some collectors, and there is not quite as universal a collector for nudes as, for example, a landscape or still life. Many experts in the field have found more seasoned collectors are sometimes more apt to purchase nudes than younger collectors. They also say that educated art lovers are also more open to collecting nudes because they are more likely to appreciate a painting or print for its technical mastery rather than its subject matter.

Szabries said he sometimes hears the argument that nudes can be inappropriate, especially around children. “People are reluctant to display the nude in the home if they have children,” he said. “They are also sometimes reluctant to display the nude in a public or corporate setting for fear of losing business of those who may be offended.”

Blankenship agreed. “I think it’s an issue of maturity and comfort with the subject,” she said. “We sometimes hear a reluctance from a younger generation about their discomfort to the exposure of nudity to their children.”

Breaking Into the Market

In spite of some of the arguments galleries may hear about selling nudes, most art experts agree there is a way to bring nudes into a wider range of galleries, and subsequently a wider range of homes, by employing a variety of sales techniques and selecting sellable nudes.

The first step in bringing nudes to the popular market is to start with the conservative nudes. Select paintings and prints that feature a rear or side view or are partially draped. Once you have educated your customers about the classic appeal of the work, it becomes easier to introduce them to images that are deemed more graphic or cutting-edge.

One of the easiest ways to encourage collectors to consider a nude is to feature nudes from an artist whose “trademark” work is not nudes. Cook, for example, said she finds that collectors who have enjoyed the colorful, dynamic work of Fairchild are more apt to be interested in his nudes, as well. “A new collector tends to go directly to his more popular style, where a more experienced viewer can be strongly drawn to his nudes,” she said. “A gallery could optimize their Fairchild collector base and turn them on to his nudes. The gallery can also capture an established collector of nudes by offering the security of Fairchild’s market and desirability.”

Others say offering a wide selection of nudes, in various styles and in various stages of undress, is another way to entice collectors. “Just as in any other subject matter, I think variety is the key,” said Blankenship. “I believe if galleries offer a selection from impressionism to realism, full to partial nudity, the collector will find a style they’re comfortable with.”

Harris also suggested selling smaller nudes, which may be easier to market. “Sometimes a nude as an accent painting, not a primary painting, might make a collector feel more comfortable.”

Another option is to encourage galleries to carry nudes for the more discerning collector but keep them out of prominent display areas.

Yet others say galleries should select well-done, masterful work and trust that the quality will speak for itself. “Truthfully, you just have to look at the quality of the work. We present the work and the quality that it is,” said Hoffman. “The galleries that handle our work gravitate towards that niche market.”

The Future of Nudes

In spite of the conservative nature of the American collector, nudes continue to thrive in the marketplace. And as attitudes change and education about the art form increases, many predict the marketplace will expand. Some even think less collectible nudes, such as full-frontal work and male nudes, which are currently not nearly as accepted as female nudes, will also see an increase in sales.

Indeed, carrying nudes can be a controversial choice for galleries. But it can also be a way to satisfy your more discerning collectors and be an educational opportunity for your less-adventurous ones.

“Most galleries have a wide range of collectors if looked at from a sophistication matrix,” concluded Spiers. “This means they will have collectors who appreciate nudes and will want to buy them. In addition, it gives a gallerist an opportunity to educate his collectors about why an artist has chosen to paint nudes. And, on the crasser side, nudes [can be] dynamic and controversial, and galleries that display them can be seen as `edgy,’ which is not an entirely bad thing.”

SOURCES

* Behr-Thyssen, (212) 431-7459

* Decorative Expressions, (770) 457-8008

* Gregory Editions, (281) 494-4734

* London Contemporary Art, 800-366-2788

* Selected International Fine Art, herb@si-i.com

* Studio Szabries, (727) 895-2444

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