Prior to the twentieth century sexuality in art was rarely expressed openly but was instead couched in symbolic terms or merely hinted at in order to avoid offending the sensibilities of the wrong people, namely church leaders and conservative secular powers. So it was with the theme of lost virginity. Pre-Victorian girls generally were married off, and consequently surrendered their sexual innocence, not long after they reached puberty (it was only around the nineteenth century that the concept of adolescence as an extended period of childhood really took hold–before this puberty meant adulthood and everything that went with it.)Thus, when loss of virginity was dealt with in pre-Victorian and Victorian art, it was framed symbolically, and the girls are frequently represented as quite young.
One of the most common symbols of this theme was the girl dipping her toe into or wading in water, in essence testing the sexual waters. Perhaps the earliest painted example (if we do not count the various paintings of Susanna, who was already married by the time of her bathing scene and so cannot be counted as virginal) is Joseph-Désiré Court’s Young Girl at the Scamander River, painted in 1824. In it we can see that the girl is barely pubescent, her breasts just beginning to bud, and she is being helped into the water by a muscular youth, who already has one foot in the water himself:
Before Court’s painting came Étienne-Maurice Falconet’s sculpture Bather; the girl is older here but still quite youthful:
The trend continued into the Victorian era:
A few artists even extended the theme to even younger girls:
Within this symbolic artistic dialogue about virginity we could also include Thomas Couture’s painting The Little Bather, who is so young that, not only has she not yet stepped into the water, no water is even visible around her. Other symbols of her innocence reinforce the concept, including an uneaten green apple (an allusion to the Garden of Eden), the white frock she’s sitting on and a crucifix:
Another major symbol of virginity lost was the broken water vessel, which had its roots in the late Renaissance. This tradition was exemplified by Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s The Broken Pitcher. There are a handful of cues here that the girl has just come from her first sexual tryst. The most overt is the nipple which coyly peeks from the top of her dress. There is also the fact that, as per Robert Herrick’s poem, she has “gathered her rosebuds”–that is, she is making use of the advantages of her youth. But, of course, it is the titular broken pitcher itself that signaled her lost innocence most effectively to the viewer.
Bouguereau continued the trend with his painting of the same name, but unlike Greuze’s sweet and content girl, Bouguereau’s girl appears to be saddened by the loss. Freud would not have missed the phallic implications of the spigot in this painting either:
Ramón Casas i Carbó depicted deflowering slightly more literally in his Flores Deshojadas, where the girl lies amidst a floor strewn with shed flower petals:
One of the most blatant examples of the lost virginity theme in art is also one of the most famous, Paul Gauguin’s The Loss of Virginity. The piece, with its bright modernist blocks of color and its in-your-face context,
seems to be the final artistic statement on the matter:
Indeed, artistically I suppose all that can be said about young girls’ loss of virginity (in our increasingly self-conscious and paranoid postmodern world) that won’t cast suspicion on the artist must be filtered through the lens of satire:
Mike Cockrill (Official Site)