Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970)
Since the days of Giorgione, the subject of the sleeping nude had connotations of a possessive male desire. Knight appeals to this tradition, but at the same time subverts it...
Laura Knight’s representations of nude women scandalised the society in which she worked. Here was a female artist drawing that subject reserved exclusively for men, the nude. Created around 1942, the present work marks an important chapter in Knight’s long engagement with the subject. A study for a larger oil painting of the same title, it shows Patricia Graves in the blissful abandon of sleep. It is the most highly finished of the two extant sketches for the work and, with the close relation that it bears to the final composition, was likely the model from which the painting was worked up...
Since the days of Giorgione, the subject of the sleeping nude had connotations of a possessive male desire. Knight appeals to this tradition, but at the same time subverts it. Unlike male artists before her, she shows not an abstracted and faceless beauty, but a named model whose portrait she painted on other occasions. Yet this only serves to heighten the atmosphere of sensuality that pervades the work; with her subject located in a domestic interior, her hair disarranged, Knight was clearly unafraid to show her confidence in the presence of other unclothed women.
As such, it is in keeping with Knight’s output at the time. Since the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, she had been working for the War Artists’ Advisory Committee. For this, she produced a number of works that were intended to show to women that they too could make powerful contribution to the war effort. Thus, her output came to be dominated by images of strong women performing tasks that it had previously been thought could only be performed by men. One could well draw a parallel between this and Knight’s career as a woman artist. But the present work is more subtle; Knight invests her sitter with a power that comes not from physical strength, but rather from rather from the confidence with which she shows an intimate female friendship.
Life modelling was banned to women in conventional art schools. Indeed, it had been to Knight, who felt that her art suffered during her time at the Nottingham School of Art from her need to draw from plaster casts and, as she later recalled, ‘such parts of the human form as were revealed to us by the school censors’. When Knight submitted a self-portrait to the Royal Academy in 1913 that showed her in the act of painting a nude female model – fellow-artist Ella Naper – it was rejected, with one critic writing in 1939 still referring to the painting as ‘regrettable’.
Eventually, however, the force of Knight’s abilities as a painter forced the establishment to grant her recognition. In 1927, she was made an associate member of the Royal Academy; two years later she was awarded a damehood, and in 1936 she was finally made a royal academician – the first woman ever to have received membership of this august institution since its inauguration.