When a Nude is a Dude

Image courtesy of the MFA

Amid all of fanfare surrounding the opening of the new Linde wing at the MFA, the fact that the museum also made a major purchase may have gone under the radar. But in fact, their decision to sell off eight paintings in order to purchase a piece by the Impressionist master Gustave Caillebotte is a interesting look at how sexuality, art, and commerce coalesce in the curation of high-end collections.

The painting in question is Caillebotte’s “Man at His Bath,” which is considered a masterful depiction of the nude human form and has been on loan to the MFA since April. While impressionist portrayals of female nudes are plentiful (and the subject of the upcoming “Degas and the Nude” exhibit at the MFA, which will open this fall), fewer than a half-dozen impressionist paintings depict men in the buff. That, plus the fact that Caillebotte’s works are extremely rare, made it a highly desired piece to have in a collection, say MFA officials, who plan to show it alongside the Degas exhibit. “It sounds vulgar to say,” Malcolm Rogers, the MFA director, told the Globe, “but every great museum in the world would want this picture.”

There’s only one hitch. While the museum desperately wanted the painting, it apparently wasn’t considered accessible enough to the public for them to seek out a benefactor to help support the sale. Hence the museum’s decision to sell off — deaccession is the proper term — eight paintings in order to raise funds for the work. George Shackelford, chairman of the MFA’s Art of Europe department, explains the cirumstances to the Globe:

The chances of obtaining funds from a generous donor were slim, he felt, because of the subject: a naked man. “It’s not an immediate sell. It’s such a tough painting that we didn’t see the likelihood of a guardian angel suddenly appearing,” Shackelford says.

The MFA is prepared to sell off works by Monet, Pissaro, Renoir, Gaugin and others that were donated to the museum to support the purchase of the Caillebotte, which has an estimated value of $17 million. It’s notable that the museum, which has often been critiqued for its reluctance to take risks, made the decision to acquire such a “tough” work. But it’s also telling that they opted not to look for an “angelic” benefactor, ostensibly because the depiction of a life-sized naked man has the potential to make people uncomfortable.

I don’t mean to be cheeky, but I’d bet that someone out there would have been willing to pony up for such a nice set of buns. But when I asked the MFA if they queried their donors about the purchase, a museum spokesperson demurred: “Between the opening of the Art of the Americas wing last November and our recently unveiled Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art, we’ve been the extremely fortunate recipient of incredible generosity from our donors.”

Apparently, when a nude is a dude, it’s tough to get people behind you.