Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Nudes: Paris Salon to U.S. Saloon

By 1748 the official exhibit of the French Academy of Fine Arts, known popularly as the Paris Salon, had become the greatest art event in the Western World, a status it maintained for 142 years. First held annually and later biannually, the Salon had undisputed influence in Europe and abroad. Nudes were a regular feature of the exhibits, many of them “dressed up” in mythological references. As shown here, in 1864 Artist Honore Daumier satirized middle-class French women scandalized by the Paris Salon’s many paintings of the naked Goddess Venus.

Nude paintings in the exhibit, often in reproduction, found a ready audience in the United States. American drinking establishments, from which women and children almost always were barred, regularly featured paintings of unclothed women over the bar or on the walls of their dark wood environs. The fleshy products of the Salon inevitably made their way to the American saloon.

Among the most popular and widespread were the works of William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905). Shown here in a self-portrait, Bouguereau was a staunch traditionalist whose realistic paintings on mythological themes were interpretations of classical subjects with a heavy emphasis on the female body. One of his most popular Salon offerings was called “Nymphs and Satyr,” showing a bevy of unclad damsels cavorting around a half-man, half-goat figure.

It was just the thing to lend a touch of French class to a Yankee bar. At the Hoffman House, a well-known Manhattan males-only bastion, a copy of the notorious Bouguereau painting resided on one wall. For a hefty fee Hoffman House allowed its name and the painting to be used to advertising products like cigars and whiskey. As a result “Nymphs and Satyr” was replicated on saloon signs and a wide array of merchandising items. It became as well known in the U.S. as in France.

At the Paris Salon of 1884 appeared a painting by a popular French artist named Emile Antoine Bayard (1837-1891). Entitled “An Affair of Honor,” it represented a duel with rapiers between two women who were stripped to the waist. The scene was laid in a well known Paris park where reputedly many encounters of this kind reputedly occurred among French courtesans. The popularity of the picture was enormous and it was exhibited all over the world.

Much reproduced, the image found its way into many of our 19th and early 20th Century barrooms. The Klein Brothers distillers of Cincinnati added advertising for their whiskey brands on the picture and gave copies away to favored saloon keepers. As for Artist Bayard, shown here on an 1891 magazine cover, he later moved to illustrating novels, among them “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Angelo Asti (1847-1903) was another frequent exhibitor at the Paris Salon. Born in Italy, he resided most of his life in France and was considered a French painter. Asti was renowned for paintings of women with long hair and loose bodices as well as erotic nudes -- some depicted on those infamous French postcards.

Asti is reputed to have spent some time in America, specifically Ohio, where he may have met the Bieler boys, three scions of a Cincinnati distilling family. The Bielers had an eye for advertising their Brookfield Rye whiskey with feminine pulchritude. They distributed signs and other artifacts that displayed a fetching lady wearing a diaphanous dress and contemplating a bottle of their whiskey. It bears Asti’s signature in the lower left.

Just as the Paris Salon lost popularity in the early 1900s, so the death knell of saloon nude art was sounded by the onset of Prohibition in 1920. When Repeal occurred in 1934 women now had the vote, openly quaffed alcoholic mixtures, and increasingly frequented dens of strong drink. As the females began to walk through the swinging doors in ever great numbers, the nudes behind the bar began to come down until today they are virtually as extinct as the dodo.

Key Words: The Salon of Paris, nude saloon art


  1. Jack, Great article. We guys have no one to blame but ourselves. There was a time when we could go down to the nearest Saloon and drink, gamble and enjoy the company of a willing woman. Now we get to set at home in front of the T.V. and go over our honey-do-list. Damn are we stupid!

  2. Dear Bob: Glad you liked the article. Similar to you my tavern time has been limited in these recent years. A shame but the places in DC cannot replace the good old Milwaukee bars. Jack