A Seriously Naughty Portrait: Countess of Lichtenau

At first there’s so much pink you almost don’t see it.  But then, yep, nipple.  The nubble detail on her collar is throwing–a cheeky addition.  Save for the aforementioned exposure and her bared hand, the countess is entirely clothed. She’s out hunting with her very eager dog but the chase is over.  The bird has been bagged, and love is on the mind.  Peppered throughout are elements of an inevitably amorous scene: the kissing doves, the gushing water pipe, the splayed gun case.  Very naughty indeed.

Countess of Lichtenau, Wilhelmine Encke by Anna Dorothea Therbusch (1776)

If you’re inclined to read about the life of our nipple bearer, she wrote The Confessions of the Celebrated Countess of Lichtenau, late Mrs. Reitz, now confined in the fortress of Glogau as a state prisoner.  I’ll be adding it to my TBR list.  Fair warning: if you’re allergic to f-type characters masquerading as s’s (It confifts chiefly of the confeffions of a woman), it’s riddled with these.  Also, as editors relished doing in the 18th and 19th centuries, many good bits have been deleted: “The language, however, was so gross and indelicate, that, out of respect to religion and morality, it was necessary to omit them.”  Too bad.


6 thoughts on “A Seriously Naughty Portrait: Countess of Lichtenau

  1. I’m curious; did wonderful paintings like this one illicit the same giggle-snort response at the time that we seem to experience today?

    As with paintings of patrons wielding hilariously enormous cod-pieces from the mid 1500’s, I’ve always wondered what an educated & measured, 18th century mind would have felt while tripping over an exposed nipple. I grew up in colonial Africa where Playboy was illegal, so I have some sense of what kind of emotional freak-out is produced when forbidden flesh is revealed so purposefully.

    With our 21st century, obsessed-yet-indifferent engagement with titillating imagery that even today it’s difficult to remember what it was like to encounter something truly shocking. I now struggle to imagine what that period must have been like.

    Do you have any insight on this subject? I understand that it’s a huge topic but I’d be curious what you’ve learned about it.

    1. A complicated question with a complicated answer, Peter. I’m going to give you the shortest answer I can while still sounding coherent (hopefully).

      From my limited understanding, breasts embodied a dualistic role in the 18th century. On the one hand, they were inextricably linked to the womb and femininity at large. On the other, they were objects of desire. Nipples often popped up in fashion plates when necklines were low in the 1770s-1780s (see here). The further into the century we get, though, the more complicated a bared breast becomes. I believe I can safely say that for much of the 18th century, female sexuality was entwined with maternity, marvelous function over titillation, if you will. There is a period between the 1760s and the introduction of the chemise a la reine (Marie Antoinette’s sheer muslin gown, emphasis on sheer) where semi-exposed breasts had a renaissance, but by the 19th century, modesty reigned and necklines rose.

      When Boucher was actively painting, breasts held connotations of coquetry and pleasure. They were admired as objects of feminine adornment. The educated French would’ve responded differently to breasts than the English, I think, but then we’re getting into their further complications. Context was probably everything: classically rendered nude, okay; countess baring breasts amid sensual props, giggle-snort. Or as I read about one young man in the Reading Sex book below, total loss of control.

      If you’re curious about art specifically, Diderot wrote essays about depicting female sexuality. I think he’s been criticized for a Madonna/whore, restraint/excess perspective. Reading Sex in the 18th Century: Bodies and Gender in English Erotic Culture also has a short analysis of the period’s view on breasts.

      1. Thanks bunch for the reading recommendation! Fascinating indeed!

        Blame the perpetually pimply-faced, prurient, potty-minded, panting adolescent in me that is forced to make the following conclusions: carefully measured examinations of, “The Lady’s Breast in History” often fail to account effectively for the typical (heterosexual) male response to the revealed female form. While I for one, might be forced to check those responses in polite company, they remain unchanged.

        Urbane women who express a baffled and annoyed boredom at the responses of men who experience their undiluted, base reaction to female physicality are as numerous as those women who actively encourage and pursue those reactions; I confess to seeing both responses as a misreading of our sad lot.

        I sense that I’m making a lot out of a little here – seeing a revealed breast apparently provokes all sorts of ambivalence and questions – I simply believe that I’m not alone, and never have been.

      2. I sympathize. The gentleman doesn’t have much hope of comfortably coexisting with the urbane woman’s cleavage; responding or not responding is likely wrong. With the truly exhibitionist lady, the primitive reflex is too easily won, so perhaps she is the most ambivalent; she’s got her guarantee. All manner of puzzling variance lies in between, making the breast a minefield indeed!

    1. I agree, Maggi. It’s not so much that the breast is bared (which seems more common than a hint of a smile in the 18th century) but the manner in which it is revealed. All elements together, I found the Countess’ portrait to be particularly telling of what we don’t see.

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