"David" by Michelangelo

“David” by Michelangelo

Classical statues and Renaissance statues of the human body, like Michelangelo’s David, were modeled on well-toned bodies of athletes. However, their genitalia was portrayed under-sized as artistic depictions of penises of normal size, even flaccid, distracted from the statue’s purpose. In 1563 the Roman Catholic Council of Trent ruled that “all lasciviousness be avoided” in religious images “in such wise that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust.” Thus the need for a fig leaf (borrowed from the Adam and Eve story in which they clothed themselves in leaves) was born.

The idea that visualizing sexual organs inspired lust continued into the Victorian era, and though somewhat toned down, into our own time. Pioneer 10 and 11, the space probes sent into the solar system in 1972 and 1973, contained gold-plated representations of the human species, but the woman had no vagina. When the Philadelphia Inquirer reprinted the image in its newspapers, it erased the woman’s nipples and the man’s genitals.

The Gold-Plated Disc Sent Into Space

The Gold-Plated Disc Sent Into Space

At present, entities such as Facebook censor artistic images of the nude. Michal Stokes, photographer, has had a long battle with Facebook regarding his images.

Back in 1891 when my protagonist, Ruby Schmidt, starts life drawing classes, one of the first images she encounters  at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia is The Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci with a fig leaf hiding his genitalia. In the 1890’s women were presumed to be both too delicate to view male sex organs and unable to control their lust should they visualize them. Thus fig leaves were added to nude art to protect their “refined sensibilities”.


Excerpts from A Different Kind of Fire and Ruby’s first life drawing class:

Anshutz glowered at the two women but continued his talk on ideal human proportions. He sketched as he talked, covering the blackboard with a drawing. “You see here The Vitruvian Man by Maestro Leonardo da Vinci, a male figure in two superimposed positions, simultaneously inscribed in a circle and a square.” Anshutz scribbled on the board. “The length of the outspread arms is equal to the height of a man, etc. Commit these proportions to memory. Remember, you can’t put clothing on a model until you understand the anatomy beneath.”

Later, Ruby joins a class taught by Thomas Eakins and sketches her first completely nude male:

The moment class finished, Ruby dashed to the lecture at the Art Students’ League. Out-of-breath, she opened the door to find a nude Wheatley posing for Fred Ames, Franklin Louis Schenck, Charles Bregler, and several other men. What did she expect? The Art Students’ League of Philadelphia was formed for the study of painting and sculpture based on the study of the nude human figure.

Da Vinci - The Vitruvian Man

Da Vinci – The Vitruvian Man

“Oh my.” She banged her satchel and portfolio on the doorjamb in her hasty retreat.

“It’s all right, Red. Come on in.” Wheatley’s voice followed her.

Eyes shut, she timidly reopened the door. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“I’m decent now.”

She opened her eyes and peeked in.

Wheatley had covered his groin with a skimpy cloth.

“Join us, Miss Schmidt?” said Eakins.

Ruby looked around. She was the only woman present, but she refused to allow her own prudery to prevent her studying the full male form.

With one hand on Wheatley’s shoulder, Eakins continued his lecture, demonstrating the movement of muscles by twisting the younger man’s back from side to side. “As he turns to the right, the muscles on the right contract and those on the left lengthen. The spinous processes curve to the right as well, and the right ribs become more prominent. Visualize the anatomy before you drape clothing on a model’s body. Only then will you achieve satisfactory results.”

Ruby whisked her sketchpad from her portfolio and, within minutes, became engrossed in her work.

As his students sketched, Eakins moved around the room offering advice and occasionally pointing his camera at the artists.

Later, when she showed the sketches to Willow, Ruby realized Wheatley’s drape had slipped away, revealing him in his entirety. She had not noticed but simply sketched what she saw. She laughed. “It simply proves we women are not driven to carnal behavior by the sight of manly parts.”


A good write-up of the fig leaf conundrum is here at Slate.com: A History of The Fig Leaf (an excerpt from Anatomies: A Cultural History of the Human Body by Hugh Aldersey-Williams).