Between 1851 and 1855 Julien Vallou de Villeneuve, a student of Millet and a lithographer of scenes of daily life, costume, and erotica, made a series of small-scale photographs of female nudes that he marketed as models for artists; evidence suggests that they were used as such by Gustave Courbet, among others.
Despite a long artistic tradition and an obvious delight in the female nude, decorum in mid-century France required that the subject be removed from the reality of the present—shown in mythological guise (Cabanel's "Birth of Venus," for example) or as an exotic creature, distant and nonthreatening. The need to provide a legitimizing context for the depiction of the nude was particularly compelling in photography, and Vallou often appointed his models with the paraphernalia of the painter's studio—rugs, shawls, spears, beads, anklets, and turbans. His most successful pictures, however, are those least encumbered by artificial trappings; revealing more and borrowing less from painterly tradition, these are the most poetic. While tantalizingly real in both weight and texture, Vallou's reclining nude seems nonetheless to float in an indeterminate and dreamlike space, a crescent moon in a starry sky.