The fascination for reality established in artistic circles in the mid 19th century prompted a thorough renewal of religious painting. Although resorting to the classical idealisation of the body seemed to be consistent with religious dogma, artists like Bonnat breathed fresh life into the genre by depicting the harsh truth of the physical condition of biblical figures.
This principle was already at work in Egalité devant la mort [Equality before Death], by Bouguereau, who, in his early work, in the final days of Romanticism, exploited the power of the image of an ordinary corpse. Rodin, far from enhancing the appearance of the novelist that he was invited to celebrate, sought to render Balzac's corpulent physique with implacable accuracy, without diminishing his grandeur in any way.
The question is thus raised of art's relationship to reality, a question Ron Mueck tackles in his work. And the strange effect brought about by a change of scale gives an intensity to the dead body of his father that echoes the dead figure in Bouguereau's painting.
Including the naked body in a landscape was not a new challenge for 19th century artists. In many aspects, this was recurrent in large-scale history painting, and a demanding artistic exercise by which a painter's technical mastery was judged. It was about making the relationship between the naked body and its setting as accurate as possible in terms of proportion, depth and light. Although Bazille's Pêcheur à l'épervier [Fisherman with a Net] is one of the most successful attempts – in a contemporary context – at depicting a naked man in an atmospheric light that the Impressionists later took for their own, he nevertheless observed the principles of academic construction.
Masculine nudity in nature took another meaning as society was transformed through technical advances and urbanisation. Man was now seeking a communion with nature, that could reconcile him with the excesses and the sense of dislocation created by the modern world, while still conforming to the theories of good health advocating physical exercise and fresh air.
This philosophical dimension, which inspired painters such as Hodler and Munch, was already evident in Flandrin's Le Jeune homme au bord de la mer [Young Man by the Sea], whose formal perfection creates a harmony between the body and the seashore. This feeling of fulfilment no doubt explains the popularity of the image, especially in the clandestine homosexual circles that existed before the First World War. This was also the image that inspired Gloeden's photographs in which naked bodies merge with the Mediterranean light of Sicily.