The exposure of the body through images of the nude was one of the most controversial issues in Victorian art.
Nudes were presented not only in painting and sculpture, but also popular illustration, and photography, fueling intense debates about the relationship between art and public morals.
Pictures of nude women prior to 1835 generally consisted of paintings and drawings which were displayed in all respectability on the walls of art galleries and in country houses.
When the new technology of photography appeared around 1835 it was quickly taken up by artists, eager for new ways to illustrate the unwrapped feminine form.In the moral climate of the 19th century the only officially sanctioned photography of the body was for the production of artist’s studies.
Erotica in the 19th and early 20th century took the form of literature, photography, sculpture and paintings, which dealt substantively with erotically stimulating or arousing descriptions.
Some photographers often hired burlesque actresses as models for nude and semi-nude photographs. The French did a roaring trade selling erotic ‘postcards’ to American tourists. These would now be termed soft-core, but they were quite shocking for the time.
The Victorian pornographic tradition in Britain had three main elements: French photographs, erotic prints (sold in shops in Holywell Street, a long vanished London thoroughfare, swept away by the Aldwych), and printed literature.
The ability to reproduce photographs in bulk assisted the rise of a new business individual, the porn dealer. Many of these dealers took advantage of the postal system to send out photographic cards in plain wrappings to their subscribers.
Later on publications masquerading as “art magazines” celebrated the new cult of naturism, with titles such as Photo Bits, Body in Art, Figure Photography, Nude Living and Modern Art for Men.
In truth,these Victorian photographic images of nudes are beautiful and have an innocence about them which could not really be claimed of today’s Playboy center-fold.