Before there were French postcards — hell, before there were nude photographs — there were daguerreotypes, and of course those early daguerrotypists, being French, pointed their metal plates coated with stinky chemicals at the nude ladies. (Well, perhaps not ladies in the social sense of the word.) With results of a surprisingly modern character:

nude french daguerreotype

The image is from a large French daguerrotype from the mid 1850s, currently to be found in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, and titled (by them) Nude Study of a Black Woman. A bit of erudite commentary can be found here:

I do not recall how I first came to find her image, but I knew instantly that it was rare and important. It was stored in a box all by itself, and I would probably never have found it had I not worked in the museum that owned it. She was extraordinary — a young black woman in France almost 140 years ago, naked and displayed and open and touching herself and reclining and smiling. The lace coverlet on which she is posed reminds me fondly, sweetly of my own grandmother’s linens, while her frankness and sexuality remind me of everything that is not my grandmother. Through all of my research I have never seen another piece of 19th century photo erotica quite like this. The daguerreotype plate is of an impressive size, and I wonder what was so extraordinary about this model to merit such special treatment, since by the mid 1850s, when this was made, the popularity of daguerreotypes in France was waning in favor of simpler positive/negative processes. Moreover, I am intrigued by what could possibly be the connection between this photographer’s model, perhaps a prostitute, a continent and a culture and a century and a half away, and me.

She is completely bare except for her head wrapped in the fashion of West Indian women. Ironically, despite her complete exposure, this small cultural marker is the only real clue as to who she might have been. She is positioned awkwardly, expressly for the act of being viewed, and we seem to see every inch of her except for her lower legs and feet. The focal point of the image, her open crotch, is coyly out of focus, yet with the explicit placement of her fingers she invites us to look, simultaneously avoiding the viewer with her gaze. Either in modesty or carnal complicity, the medium obscures her sex in murkiness.