Queen Victoria's Secret:Lifting the Fig Leaf

03/17/2015 03:28 pm ET | Updated May 16, 2015


edited by Zhenya Gershman

When looking at great works of art the best recipe is to combine a willingness for deep knowledge and careful observation, being open to a sense of humor, artistic interpretation, and examination with fresh eyes. Bruce Richards, a provocative figurative artist represented by the prestigious Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, whose works are deeply rooted in a dialogue with art history, shared his story of his recent Michelangelo revelation with project AWE. As Bruce set out to make a scaled replica of the fig leaf commissioned for Michelangelo's "David" he noticed something unexpected...

ORIGINAL Plaster cast of original statue of "David", by Michelangelo, Florence, Italy, 1501-4. Cast by unknown maker, about 1857. Museum no. REPRO.1857-161, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


The cast of Michelangelo's "David", taken from the original marble figure now in the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, was an early and unexpected acquisition for the fledgling Museum at South Kensington. Delivered to the Museum in February 1857, the massive cast - six meters in height - was a gift presented to Queen Victoria by the Grand Duke of Tuscany. The presentation of the cast was a gesture of diplomatic goodwill, following the grand duke's veto on the export from Florence of a painting by Ghirlandaio, which the National Gallery in London had hoped to acquire. The Queen however had no prior notice of this large and somewhat unwieldy gift, and did not wish to house it.

The cast was therefore promptly re-routed by the Foreign Office to South Kensington. It was delivered to the newly completed so-called 'Brompton Boilers' - the first permanent buildings on the South Kensington site - and installed in a prominent position in the Art Museum (now the Victoria & Albert Museum), surrounded by both original works and other plaster reproductions. Later it was moved to the Architectural Courts (now known as the Cast Courts). Today it is displayed in the court devoted to reproductions of Italian architecture and sculpture (Room 46b).

MICHAELANGELO BLACK WHITE DAVID WITH LEAF A photograph of the Art Museum shows the figure of "David" wearing a fig leaf. The fig leaf is likely to have been made by the Anglo-Italian firm D. Brucciani & Co., based in London.

The story goes that on her first encounter with the cast of "David" at the Museum, Queen Victoria was so shocked by the nudity that a proportionally scaled fig leaf was commissioned. It was then kept in readiness for any royal visits, when it was hung on the figure using two strategically placed hooks. The plaster cast of a fig leaf, measuring half a meter high, was made in London soon after the statue's arrival and attached to the statue to spare the blushes of visiting female dignitaries.

vitrine The vitrine currently housing the leaf located behind the sculpture on the plinth.


The role of art to obfuscate while still seducing has had a long history. By commissioning a fig leaf the queen attracted our attention precisely to the subject she wished to hide. As part of my creative investigation, I set out to sculpt my version of David's leaf on a different, more personal scale, as an object I found to be sexually charged, undulating in form and wonderfully contemporary. As a single disassociated item it retained its own beauty outside its original use. I sculpted two versions: one in bronze patinated to evoke a plaster surface, and another a polished stainless steel, both scaled to accommodate a six-foot David.

In a moment of inspection of the wax model, I placed my sculpture next to the image of David to check it against the reference. This revealed something completely unexpected: to my surprise, the fig leaf's design echoed the "contrapposto" stance of David (this classic pose causes the figure's hips and shoulders to rest at opposite angles, giving a slight s-curve to the entire torso)!

contrapposo of leaf design echos that of David Bruce Richard's version of the leaf next to an image of "David".

As you can see in the images, the right lobe of the leaf hangs down as is the right arm, the left lobe bends forward, and the stem repeats the standing gesture, relaxed on the left. The main lobe has its weight contracting on the right while full and relaxed on the left. The top of the stem is turned to the left as does the head of David.

RED BLUE DIAGRAM In this illustration you can see author Dan Duhrkoop using "David" as the classic example of "contrapposto"; the red and blue lines further define the same elements in the leaf's design.

We may never know whether the British artist made his fig leaf to mimic David's famous pose intentionally, out of respect to the original, or simply as a joke on queen's behalf! One thing is clear, art is best seen in a dialogue: the very act of creative process allows us to see older art in a new way!

stainless steel
"Grand Tour",
Bruce Richards, 2014, Stainless Steel, 7 ½ x 7 x 2 inches (scaled replica of an original leaf made for a copy of Michelangelo's "David"), Edition 1/12, Courtesy Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, Los Angeles

Bruce Richard's works are currently on view at Jack Rutberg Fine Arts in Los Angeles.