The Invention of Clumsiness

Durieu_4_final2Alexi Worth at Cabinet:

One afternoon in May of 1853, the painter Eugène Delacroix went for a walk in the forest with two old friends. As they walked, the three men returned to topics they had discussed before: questions of spontaneity, how finished pictures are “always somewhat spoiled” compared to sketches. Together they admired a famous oak tree. They talked about Racine. Then they went back to Delacroix’s house for dinner. After the meal, Delacroix later recalled, “I made them try the experiment which I had done myself, without planning it, two days before.” The experiment was simple. First, he passed around a set of unusual pictures, photographic calotypes that Eugène Durieu, a pioneer in the new medium of photography, had taken at his request.1 In these small amber images, a naked man and woman appeared—sometimes alone, sometimes together; sitting, standing, or kneeling; often staring warily back at the lens. The naked couple are memorable to posterity, because they were among the first humans to be photographed without clothes. If they weren’t the Adam and Eve of photographic nakedness, they were among the earliest citizens of that now fairly populous realm. But they didn’t beguile or even impress the great painter and his companions. “Poorly built, and oddly shaped in places,” as Delacroix drily put it, the two models were “not very attractive generally.”

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