For Francis Newton Souza, the female body was a means to express both torment and fascination in his work. Frequently revisiting this archetype throughout his long career, Souza’s varying engagement with the figure of the woman is well documented. These works explore a wide range of physiognomies from the most sublime and tender nudes to distorted and grotesque figures, expressing the artist’s complex views on the human condition, corruption, sexuality and religion.
In the first monograph on Souza published in 1962, in which the present lot is illustrated, Edwin Mullins discusses the significance of the female nude in Souza’s practice, noting that the artist’s women “[...] clearly have their origins in Indian stone carvings and bronzes. Yet in spirit they are not traditional [...] On the whole his paintings of nudes are more gentle than most of his other work; they have less impassioned ferocity about them. At the same time they are often perverse and obsessed. The inelegant sexual poses, the blunt emphasis on the pregnant belly, the ravaged face. They suggest a personal fascination with the female body, blended with an almost Swiftian disgust with its natural functions.” (E. Mullins, Souza, London, 1962, p. 43)
The present lot was painted in 1957, a time when Souza had won critical recognition, patronage and gallery representation in London. The nudes Souza painted during this period are among his most accomplished, highlighting his confidence with their thick black outlines and unabashed, sculptural figuration. Emerging from a dark, spare background, the nubile subject in this painting illustrates the artist’s preference for figures in frontal poses, echoing the forms he discovered in the temple sculptures of Khajuraho and Mathura. While she is not as voluptuously curved as these sculptures, her youthful body is statuesque and her innocent gaze captivates the viewer, evoking a sense of quiet monumentality. This is accentuated by her long dark hair that frames her shoulders, her arms clasped behind her back and the simple necklace she wears as her only adornment. Souza’s mastery is evident in the textural layering of color and the subtle play of light and shade he uses to heighten the forms of her body.