Bare Beach Babies Pt. 1: The Victorian Era

Before swimming came into popularity as a pastime there was sea bathing, a practice that traces back to the 1600s but which really took off during the Victorian age, when the advent of railroads allowed fast and easy passage to the seaside in many European countries and the American coasts.  While adults tended to wear clothes for such bathing, at least in mixed company, children were given a bit more leeway with regard to their bathing costume.  It was not uncommon for young children to bathe sans habillement—that is, without clothing.  While occasional prudish laws and mores cropped up before then—e.g.Wikipedia states the following: “For example, in the 16th century, a German court document in the Vechta prohibited the naked (meaning everything exposed) public swimming of children.”—it wasn’t until the 20th century that the prevailing tastes of the West deemed it necessary for children to don clothing while at public beaches. Thus, several artists of the era captured children frolicking nude at the seaside, one of the few places where this was still allowed in public. Perhaps these painters were drawn to these scenes because they recalled something of the Classical Age that the Victorians and 19th century Europeans were so fascinated with. A few painters, most notably Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, dedicated nearly their whole career to these beach idylls.


Théophile Auguste Vauchelet – l’Eau (Early 1800s)


Théophile Auguste Vauchelet – Le Printemps (Early 1800s)


Anselm Feuerbach – Children on the Beach

Bouguereau’s little bathers are just beginning to shed their clothes:


William-Adolphe Bouguereau – Les jeunes baigneuses (1879)


Benito Rebolledo Correa – Children Playing at the Beach


Benito Rebolledo Correa – Girl on the Beach


Benito Rebolledo Correa – La Brisa


Benito Rebolledo Correa – Nina frente al mar


Charles Chaplin – Two Girls Bathing (1866)


Frederick Arthur Bridgman – The Bathing Beauties (1872)


Emanuel Phillips Fox – The Bathing Hour


Hans Heyerdahl – The Rock


Maurice Denis – Games in the Sand

Paul Emile Chabas – Mother and Child Bathing

Paul Émile Chabas – Mother and Child Bathing

Paul Émile Chabas – Premier bain (1907) (1)

Paul Émile Chabas – Premier bain (1907) (2)


Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida – Antes del Bano (1909)


Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida – Las dos hermanas (1909)


Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida – The Bath, Jávea (1905)


Paul Gustave Fischer – A Day at the Beach (1900)

Wikipedia: Anselm Feuerbach

Wikipedia: William-Adolphe Bouguereau

William-Adolphe Bouguereau: The Complete Works

Wikipedia: Charles Chaplin (artist)

Wikipedia: Frederick Arthur Bridgman

Frederick Arthur Bridgman: The Complete Works

Wikipedia: E. Phillips Fox

Wikipedia: Maurice Denis

Wikipedia: Paul Émile Chabas

Wikipedia: Joaquín Sorolla

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida: The Complete Works

Wikipedia: Paul Gustave Fischer

Deflowered: Loss of Virginity in Art

Prior to the twentieth century sexuality in art was rarely expressed openly but was instead couched in symbolic terms or merely hinted at in order to avoid offending the sensibilities of the wrong people, namely church leaders and conservative secular powers. So it was with the theme of lost virginity. Pre-Victorian girls generally were married off, and consequently surrendered their sexual innocence, not long after they reached puberty (it was only around the nineteenth century that the concept of adolescence as an extended period of childhood really took hold—before this puberty meant adulthood and everything that went with it.)Thus, when loss of virginity was dealt with in pre-Victorian and Victorian art, it was framed symbolically, and the girls are frequently represented as quite young.

One of the most common symbols of this theme was the girl dipping her toe into or wading in water, in essence testing the sexual waters. Perhaps the earliest painted example (if we do not count the various paintings of Susanna, who was already married by the time of her bathing scene and so cannot be counted as virginal) is Joseph-Désiré Court’s Young Girl at the Scamander River, painted in 1824. In it we can see that the girl is barely pubescent, her breasts just beginning to bud, and she is being helped into the water by a muscular youth, who already has one foot in the water himself:

Joseph-Désiré Court - Young Girl at the Scamander River (Nymph and Faun Bathing) (1824)

Joseph-Désiré Court – Young Girl at the Scamander River (Nymph and Faun Bathing) (1824)

Wikipedia: Joseph-Désiré Court

Before Court’s painting came Étienne Maurice Falconet’s sculpture Bather; the girl is older here but still quite youthful:

Étienne-Maurice Falconet - Bather (1757)

Étienne Maurice Falconet – Bather (1757)

Wikipedia: Étienne Maurice Falconet

The trend continued into the Victorian era:

Paul Peel – The Little Shepherdess (1892)

Paul Peel – The Little Shepherdess (1892)

Wikipedia: Paul Peel

Jules Joseph Lefebvre - Chloe (1875)

Jules Joseph Lefebvre – Chloe (1875)

Jules Joseph Lefebvre: The Complete Works

Wikipedia: Jules Joseph Lefebvre

William-Adolphe Bouguereau - La gue (The Ford) (1895)

William-Adolphe Bouguereau – Le Gué (The Ford) (1895)

William-Adolphe Bouguereau: The Complete Works

Wikipedia: William-Adolphe Bouguereau

A few artists even extended the theme to even younger girls:

Georges Jacquot - Jeune nymphe descendant dans l'eau

Georges Jacquot – Jeune nymphe descendant dans l’eau

Wikipedia: Georges Jacquot

Paul Émile Chabas – The Bather

Wikipedia: Paul Émile Chabas

Within this symbolic artistic dialogue about virginity we could also include Thomas Couture’s painting The Little Bather, who is so young that, not only has she not yet stepped into the water, no water is even visible around her. Other symbols of her innocence reinforce the concept, including an uneaten green apple (an allusion to the Garden of Eden), the white frock she’s sitting on and a crucifix:

Thomas Couture - The Little Bather (1849)

Thomas Couture – The Little Bather (1849)

Wikipedia: Thomas Couture

Another major symbol of virginity lost was the broken water vessel, which had its roots in the late Renaissance. This tradition was exemplified by Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s The Broken Pitcher. There are a handful of cues here that the girl has just come from her first sexual tryst. The most overt is the nipple which coyly peeks from the top of her dress. There is also the fact that, as per Robert Herrick’s poem, she has “gathered her rosebuds”—that is, she is making use of the advantages of her youth. But, of course, it is the titular broken pitcher itself that signalled her lost innocence most effectively to the viewer.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze - The Broken Pitcher (1849) (1)

Jean-Baptiste Greuze – The Broken Pitcher (1849) (1)

Jean-Baptiste Greuze - The Broken Pitcher (1849) (2)

Jean-Baptiste Greuze – The Broken Pitcher (1849) (2)

Wikipedia: Jean-Baptiste Greuze

Bouguereau continued the trend with his painting of the same name, but unlike Greuze’s sweet and content girl, Bouguereau’s girl appears to be saddened by the loss. Freud would not have missed the phallic implications of the spigot in this painting either:

William-Adolphe Bouguereau - The Broken Pitcher (1891)

William-Adolphe Bouguereau – The Broken Pitcher (1891)

Ramon Casas i Carbó depicted deflowering slightly more literally in his Flores Deshojadas, where the girl lies amidst a floor strewn with shed flower petals:

Ramon Casas i Carbó – Flores Deshojadas (1894)

Wikipedia: Ramon Casas i Carbó

One of the most blatant examples of the lost virginity theme in art is also one of the most famous, Paul Gauguin’s The Loss of Virginity. The piece, with its bright modernist blocks of color and its in-your-face context, seems to be the final artistic statement on the matter:

Paul Gauguin - The Loss of Virginity (1890-91)

Paul Gauguin – The Loss of Virginity (1890-91)

Paul Gauguin: The Complete Works

Wikipedia: Paul Gauguin

Indeed, artistically I suppose all that can be said about young girls’ loss of virginity (in our increasingly self-conscious and paranoid postmodern world) that won’t cast suspicion on the artist must be filtered through the lens of satire:

Mike Cockrill - Broken Pitcher (2007)

Mike Cockrill – Broken Pitcher (2007)

Mike Cockrill (Official Site)