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Nude (art)

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Nude (art)

Michelangelo's David
David (1504)
"What spirit is so empty and blind, that it cannot recognize the fact that the foot is more noble than the shoe, and skin more beautiful than the garment with which it is clothed?"

The nude figure is mainly a tradition in Western art, and has been used to express ideals of male and female beauty and other human qualities. It was a central preoccupation of Ancient Greek art, and after a semi-dormant period in the Middle Ages returned to a central position in Western art with the Renaissance. Athletes, dancers, and warriors are depicted to express human energy and life, and nudes in various poses may express basic or complex emotions such as pathos.[1] In one sense, a nude is a work of fine art that has as its primary subject the unclothed human body,[2] forming a subject genre of art, in the same way as landscapes and still life. Unclothed figures often also play a part in other types of art, such as history painting, including allegorical and religious art, portraiture, or the decorative arts.

While there is no single definition of fine art, there are certain generally accepted features of most definitions. In the fine arts, the subject is not merely copied from nature, but transformed by the artist into an aesthetic object, usually without significant utilitarian, commercial (advertising, illustration), or purely decorative purposes. There is also a judgement of taste; the fine art nude being part of high culture rather than middle brow or low culture.[3] However, judgements of taste in art are not entirely subjective, but include criteria of skill and craftsmanship in the creation of objects, communication of complex and non-trivial messages, and creativity.[4] Some works accepted as high culture of the past, including much Academic art, are now seen as imitative or sentimental[5] otherwise known as kitsch.[6][7]

Modern artists have continued to explore classical themes, but also more abstract representations, and movement away from idealization to depict people more individually. During most of the twentieth century, the depiction of human beauty was of little interest to modernists, who were concerned instead with the creation of beauty through formal means.[8] In the contemporary, or Post-modern era, the nude may be seen as passé by many,[9] however there are always artists that continue to find inspiration in the human form.[10]


  • Issues 1
    • The naked and the nude 1.1
    • Sexuality 1.2
      • Public reaction versus the art world 1.2.1
      • Explaining nudity in art to students 1.2.2
    • Depictions of youth 1.3
    • Gender differences 1.4
      • Male nude: gods and warriors 1.4.1
      • Female nude: the Venus and Odalisques 1.4.2
      • Modern reinterpretations 1.4.3
    • Social commentary 1.5
  • History 2
    • Ancient Greece 2.1
    • Middle Ages and Renaissance 2.2
    • Baroque to Modern 2.3
    • Modern 2.4
    • Contemporary 2.5
  • Media 3
    • Drawing 3.1
    • Printmaking 3.2
    • Painting 3.3
    • Sculpture 3.4
    • Photography 3.5
    • New media 3.6
  • See also 4
  • Notes 5
  • References 6
    • Books 6.1
    • Journals 6.2
    • Web 6.3
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8


La maja vestida, ca. 1803.
Olympia (1863) by Manet

The naked and the nude

The most often cited book on the nude in art history is The Nude: a Study in Ideal Form by Lord Kenneth Clark, first published in 1956. The introductory chapter makes the most often-quoted distinction[11] between the naked body and the nude. Clark states that to be naked is to be deprived of clothes, and implies embarrassment and shame, while a nude, as a work of art, has no such connotations. This separation of the artistic form from the social and cultural issues remains largely unexamined by classical art historians. One of the defining characteristics of the modern era in art is the blurring of the line between the naked and the nude. This likely first occurred with the painting The Nude Maya (1797) by Goya, which in 1815 drew the attention of the Spanish Inquisition.[12] The shocking elements were that it showed a particular model in a contemporary setting, with pubic hair rather than the smooth perfection of goddesses and nymphs, who returned the gaze of the viewer rather than looking away. (Goya then painted another version, with clothes.) Some of the same characteristics were shocking almost 70 years later when Manet exhibited his Olympia, not because of religious issues, but because of its modernity. Rather than being a timeless Odalisque that could be safely viewed with detachment, Manet's image was of a prostitute of that time, perhaps referencing the male viewers' own sexual practices.[13]

Frances Borzello says that contemporary artists are no longer interested in the ideals and traditions of the past, but confront the viewer with all the sexuality, discomfort and anxiety that the unclothed body may express, perhaps eliminating the distinction between the naked and the nude.[14] Performance art takes the final step by presenting actual naked bodies as a work of art.[15]


Kenneth Clark noted that sexuality was part of the attraction to the nude as a subject of art, stating "no nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even though it be only the faintest shadow—and if it does not do so it is bad art and false morals." According to Clark, the explicit temple sculptures of tenth-century India "are great works of art because their eroticism is part of their whole philosophy." Great art can contain significant sexual content without being obscene.[16] However sexually explicit works of fine art produced in Europe before the modern era, such as Gustav Courbet's L'Origine du monde, were not intended for public display.[17][18] The judgement of whether a particular work is artistic or pornographic is ultimately subjective and has changed through history and from one culture to another. Some individuals judge any public display of the unclothed body to be unacceptable,[19] while others may find artistic merit in explicitly sexual images. Public reviews of art may or may not address the issue.[20]

Public reaction versus the art world

While the nude, and in particular the female body has always been one of the more obvious subjects of work in museums, in the United States nudity in art is a controversial subject when public funding and display in certain venues brings the work to the attention of the general public.[21][22] Puritan history continues to impact the selection of artwork shown in museums and galleries. At the same time that any nude may be suspect in the view of many patrons and the public, art critics may reject work that is not either ironic or fetishistic, and therefore cutting edge. “Artists who refuse to assault the body with stylishly perverse psychological or physical deformations are usually dismissed as being hopelessly out of tune with today’s art world.”[23] Works that celebrate the human body are likely to be seen as too erotic by one group, and kitsch by the other. According to Bram Dijkstra, attractive nudes by American artists have been relegated to storage by museums, with only rare special exhibits or publications in recent decades. Relatively tame nudes tend to be shown in museums, while works with shock value such as those by Jeff Koons[24] are shown in cutting-edge galleries. Dijkstra says the art world has devalued simple beauty and pleasure, although these values are present in art from the past and in many contemporary works.[25]

Explaining nudity in art to students

When school groups visit museums, there are inevitable questions that teachers or tour leaders must be prepared to answer. The basic advice is to give matter-of-fact answers emphasizing the differences between art and other images, the universality of the human body, and the values and emotions expressed in the works.[26] However, the problems that might arise lead many teachers to avoid the subject.[27]

Depictions of youth

A Nude Boy on a Beach (1878) by John Singer Sargent

In classical works, children were rarely shown except for babies and

  • "Francis Bacon". Estate of Francis Bacon. Retrieved 10 November 2012. 
  • Leopold Museum, Austria -Nude Men[1]

External links

  • Falcon, Felix Lance (2006). Gay Art: a Historic Collection [and history], ed. and with an introd. & captions by Thomas Waugh. Vancouver, B.C.: Arsenal Pulp Press. N.B.: The art works are b&w sketches and drawings of males, nude or nearly so, with much commentary. ISBN 1-55152-205-5
  • Roussan, Jacques de (1982). Le Nu dans l'art au Québec. La Prairie, Qué.: Éditions M. Broquet. N.B.: Concerns mostly the artistic depiction of the female nude, primarily in painting and drawing. ISBN 2-89000-066-4

Further reading

  • Graves, Ellen (2003). "The Nude in Art - a Brief History". University of Dundee. Retrieved 12 November 2012. 
  • Postiglione, Corey. "The Postmodern Nude". Retrieved 2013-02-22. 
  • Ryder, Edmund C (January 2008). "Nudity and Classical Themes in Byzantine Art, In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History". New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 25 October 2012. 


  • Larissa Bonfante (Oct 1989). "Nudity as a Costume in Classical Art". American Journal of Archaeology (Archaeological Institute of America) 93 (4): 543–570. Retrieved 06/03/2013. 


  • Berry, William A. (1977). Drawing the Human Form: A Guide to Drawing from Life. New York: Van Nortrand Reinhold Co.  
  • Borzello, Frances (2012). The Naked Nude. New York: Thames & Hudson Inc.  
  • Clark, Kenneth (1956). The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form. Princeton: Princeton University Press.  
  • Dawes, Richard, ed. (1984). John Hedgecoe's Nude Phtotgraphy. New York: Simon and Schuster. 
  • Dijkstra, Bram (2010). Naked : The Nude in America. New York: Rizzoli.  
  • Dutton, Denis (2009). The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. New York: Bloomsbury Press.  
  • Gill, Michael (1989). Image of the Body. New York: Doubleday.  
  • Hughes, Robert (1997). Lucian Freud Paintings. Thames & Hudson.  
  • Jacobs, Ted Seth (1986). Drawing with an Open Mind. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications.  
  • King, Ross (2007). The Judgement of Paris:The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism. PIML.  
  • Leppert, Richard (2007). The Nude: The Cultural Rhetoric of the Body in the Art of Western Modernity. Cambridge: Westview Press.  
  • Mullins, Charlotte (2006). Painting People: Figure Painting Today. New York: D.A.P. ISBN 978-1-933045-38-2
  • Nead, Lynda (1992). The Female Nude. New York: Routledge.  
  • Nicolaides, Kimon (1975). The Natural Way to Draw. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.  
  • Postle, M. & Vaughn,W. (1999). The Artist's Model: from Etty to Spencer. London: Merrell Holberton.  
  • Rosenblum, Robert (2003). John Currin. Harry N. Abrams.  
  • Saunders, Gill (1989). The Nude: A New Perspective. Rugby, Warwickshire, England: Jolly & Barber, Ltd.  
  • Scala, Mark, ed. (2009). Paint Made Flesh. Vanderbilt University Press.  
  • Steiner, Wendy (2001). Venus in Exile: The Rejection of Beauty in Twentieth-century Art. The Free Press.  
  • Steinhart, Peter (2004). The Undressed Art: Why We Draw. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.  



  1. ^ Clark, Ch.1 The Naked and the Nude
  2. ^ Clark
  3. ^ Low Culture should not be confused with the Lowbrow or Graffiti Art Movement, which often uses nude images from popular culture but attempts to raise them to Fine Art.
  4. ^ Dutton, Ch. 3 - What is Art?
  5. ^ King, Ross
  6. ^ "Theories of Media,Keywords Glossary:kitsch". The University of Chicago. 
  7. ^ See also: Avant Garde and Kitsch
  8. ^ Steiner pp. 44, 49–50
  9. ^ Steinhart, p. 9
  10. ^ "Nude Freud painting in £17m record sale". Metro. Retrieved 22 October 2012. 
  11. ^ Nead, p.14
  12. ^ Goya, F., Tomlinson, J. A., Calvo, S. F., Museo del Prado., & National Gallery of Art (U.S.). (2002). Goya: Images of women. Washington, D.C: National Gallery of Art. p. 228. ISBN 0894682938
  13. ^ Charles Bernheimer (Summer 1989). "Manet's Olympia: The Figuration of Scandal". Poetics Today (Duke University Press) 10 (2): 255–277.  
  14. ^ Borzello, Introduction
  15. ^ Borzello, Chapter 2 - Body Art: the Journey into Nakedness
  16. ^ Clark, pp. 8-9
  17. ^ Leppert p. 247
  18. ^ Nochlin, Linda (1986). "Courbet's "L'origine du monde": The Origin without an Original". October (The MIT Press) 37: 76–86. Retrieved 23 February 2013. 
  19. ^ Smith, Timothy R. and Weil, Martin (April 3, 2011). "National Gallery visitor attacks Gauguin painting". The Washington Post. Retrieved October 22, 2012. 
  20. ^ Gopnik, Blake (November 8, 2009). "In Art We Lust". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2013-02-23. 
  21. ^ Nead
  22. ^ The Nude in Contemporary Art. The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art. 1999. 
  23. ^ Dijkstra, p. 11
  24. ^ Schjeldahl, Peter (June 9, 2008). "Funhouse:A Jeff Koons retrospective". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2013-02-24. 
  25. ^ Dijkstra, Introduction
  26. ^ "Body Language:How to Talk to Students about Nudity in Art". Art Institute of Chicago. March 18, 2003. Retrieved 2013-02-28. 
  27. ^ "Teach Art Exchange: Response to Nudity in Art Education". The January 8, 2008. Retrieved 2013-02-28. 
  28. ^ Dijkstra, Ch. 5 - Retreat to the Dream
  29. ^ Leppert, Ch. 2 - Representing the Young
  30. ^ Leppert, p. 166
  31. ^ a b c d Rodgers, David and Plantzos, Dimitris. "Nude." Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Web. Retrieved 2 November 2013.
  32. ^ "Ingres' La Grand Odalisque". 
  33. ^ Nead, Part I - Theorizing the Female Nude
  34. ^ Dijkstra, Ch. 3 - The “New Woman”: Fading Flower or Scourge of Nature?
  35. ^ Leppert, pp. 9-11
  36. ^ Dijkstra, pp. 246-247
  37. ^ a b c d Graves
  38. ^ Goodson, Aileen. "Nudity in Ancient to Modern Cultures". Retrieved 03/09/2013. 
  39. ^ Sorabella, Jean (January 2008). "The Nude in Western Art and its Beginnings in Antiquity, In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History". New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 25 October 2012. 
  40. ^ Clark, pp. 300-309
  41. ^ Ryder
  42. ^ Clark, pp. 221-226
  43. ^ Clark, pp. 307-312
  44. ^ Clark, pp. 48-50
  45. ^ Sorabella, Jean (January 2008). "The Nude in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History". New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 25 October 2012. 
  46. ^ "Degas and the Nude". Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Retrieved 10 November 2012. 
  47. ^ Sorabella, Jean (January 2008). "The Nude in Baroque and Later Art, In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History". New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 25 October 2012. 
  48. ^ Borzello, p. 30
  49. ^ Scala, Ch 2. "The Influence of Anxiety" by Susan H. Edwards
  50. ^ Monaghan, Peter (Jan 2, 2011). "Unveiling the American Nude". The Chronicle of Higher Education. 
  51. ^ Leppert, pp. 154-155
  52. ^ Borzello, Chapter 2 - The Changing Room: Female Perspectives
  53. ^ Borzello, p. 90
  54. ^ Leppert, pp. 221-223
  55. ^ RIDING, ALAN (September 25, 1995). "The School of London, Mordantly Messy as Ever". The New York Times. Retrieved 2013-02-16. 
  56. ^ "Lucien Freud". London: The Guardian. 8 February 2012. Retrieved 10 November 2012. 
  57. ^ "Naked Portrait 1972-3". The Tate Modern. Retrieved 2013-02-17. 
  58. ^ Grimes, William (Jul 22, 2011). "Lucian Freud, Figurative Painter Who Redefined Portraiture, Is Dead at 88". The New York Times. 
  59. ^ "Jenny Saville". Saatchi Gallery. Retrieved 10 November 2012. 
  60. ^ Mullins, p. 38
  61. ^ Mullins, p. 168
  62. ^ Mullins, p. 35
  63. ^ Mullins, p. 44
  64. ^ Dumas, M., Bedford, E., South African National Gallery., & Standard Bank Centre Art Gallery. (2007). Marlene Dumas: Intimate relations. Johannesburg: Jacana Media. p. 43. ISBN 9781770093812
  65. ^ Nicolaides
  66. ^ Clark, p. 9
  67. ^ Scala, p.1
  68. ^ Gimbustas, Marija The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe: Myths and Cult Images, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1974
  69. ^ Finn, David, essay by Vicki Goldberg, ‘’Nude Sculpture: 5,000 Years’’, Harry N. Abrams Ltd., Publishers, New York, 2000. p. 14
  70. ^ Dawes, p.6
  71. ^ "Naked Before the Camera". Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 10 November 2012. 
  72. ^ Scala, p. 4
  73. ^ Clark, p. 3
  74. ^ Conrad,Donna (2000), "A Conversation with Ruth Bernhard", Vol. 1 No. 3 (PhotoVision) 
  75. ^ "Edward Weston". Retrieved 10 November 2012. 


See also

In the late twentieth century several new art forms have emerged, including installations, performance, and video art all of which have been used to create works that include nudity.

New media

The nude has been a subject of photography almost since its invention in the nineteenth century. Early photographers often selected poses that imitated the classical nudes of the past.[70] Photography suffers from the problem of being too real,[71][72] and for many years was not accepted by those committed to the traditional fine arts.[73] However, the work of many photographers has been established as fine artists including Ruth Bernhard,[74] Imogen Cunningham, Anne Brigman, Edward Weston[75] and Alfred Stieglitz.


Due to its durability, it is in sculpture that we see the full, nearly unbroken history of the nude from the Stone Age to the present. Figures, usually of naked females, have been found in the Balkan region dating back to 7,000 BCE [68] and continue to this day to be generated. In the Indian and Southeast Asian sculpture tradition nudes were frequently adorned with bracelets and jewelry that tended to "punctuate their charms and demarcate the different parts of their bodies much as developed musculature does in the male."[69]


Oil paint historically has been the ideal medium for depicting the nude. By blending and layering paint, the surface can become more like skin. "Its slow drying time and various degrees of viscosity enable the artist to achieve rich and subtle blends of color and texture, which can suggest transformations from one human substance to another."[67]


Japanese prints are one of the few non-western traditions that can be called nudes, but they are quite different. The activity of communal bathing in Japan is portrayed as just another social activity, without the significance placed upon the lack of clothing that exists in the West.[66]


In art, a figure drawing is a study of the human form in its various shapes and body postures, with line, form, and composition as the primary objective, rather than the subject person. A life drawing is a work that has been drawn from an observation of a live model. Study of the human figure has traditionally been considered the best way to learning how to draw, beginning in the late Renaissance and continuing to the present.[65]



The Nude in Non-Western Art
The Venus of Willendorf made between 24,000 and 22,000 BCE. 
The Burney Relief, Old Babylonian, around 1800 BCE 
Dancers and Flutists, Thebes ca 1400 BCE 
Bala Krishna dancing, sculpture from National Museum, New Delhi 
Kandariya Mahadev Temple in Khajuraho, India (1050) 
Kitagawa Utamaro, Bathing woman (c1753). 
Indian artist, 1775. A woman putting on her clothes. 
Hashiguchi Goyô Woodcut "Yuami" (1915) 

The end of the twentieth century saw the rise of new media and approaches to art, although they began much earlier. In particular installation art often includes images of the human body, and performance art frequently includes nudity. "Cut Piece" by Yoko Ono was first performed in 1964 (then known as a "happening"). Audience members were requested to come on stage and begin cutting away her clothing until she was naked. Several contemporary performance artists such as Marina Abramović, Vanessa Beecroft and Carolee Schneemann use their own nude bodies or other performers in their work.

The paintings of Jenny Saville include family and self-portraits among other nudes; often done in extreme perspectives, attempting to balance realism with abstraction; all while expressing how a woman feels about the female nude.[59] Lisa Yuskavage's nude figures painted in a nearly academic manner constitute a "parody of art historical nudity and the male obsession with the female form as object".[60] John Currin is another painter whose work frequently reinterprets historic nudes.[61] Cecily Brown's paintings combine figurative elements and abstraction in a style reminiscent of de Kooning.[62] Marlene Dumas paints emotionally challenging images derived from her own snapshots or from photographs found in news magazines.[63] Dumas says of her paintings of nude figures that "it was not the nude I was looking for, nor the posing figure, but the erotic conditions of life ... Two 'subjects' confronting each other."[64]

Lucien Freud was one of a small group of painters which included Francis Bacon who came to be known as "The School of London"; creating figurative work in the 1970s when it was unfashionable.[55] However, by the end of his life his works had become icons of the Post Modern era, depicting the human body without a trace of idealization, as in his series working with an obese model.[56] One of Freud's works is entitled "Naked Portrait", which implies a realistic image of a particular unclothed woman rather than a conventional nude.[57] In Freud's obituary in The New York Times, it is stated: His "stark and revealing paintings of friends and intimates, splayed nude in his studio, recast the art of portraiture and offered a new approach to figurative art".[58]

Benefits Supervisor Sleeping
Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995)
"I paint people, not because of what they are like, not exactly in spite of what they are like, but how they happen to be."
- Lucien Freud


Around 1970, from feminist principles, Sylvia Sleigh painted a series of works reversing stereotypical artistic themes by featuring naked men in poses usually associated with women.[54]

Other New York artists of this period retained the figure as their primary subject. Alice Neel painted nudes, including her own self-portrait, in the same straightforward style as clothed sitters,[51] being primarily concerned with color and emotional content.[52] Philip Pearlstein uses unique cropping and perspective to explore the abstract qualities of nudes. As a young artist in the 1950s, Pearlstein exhibited both abstracts and figures, but it was deKooning that advised him to continue with figurative work.[53]

In the post-WWII era, Abstract Expressionism moved the center of Western art from Paris to New York City. One of the primary influences in the rise of abstraction, the critic Clement Greenberg, had supported de Kooning's early abstract work. Despite Greenberg's advice, the artist, who had begun as a figurative painter, returned to the human form in early 1950 with his Woman series. Although having some references to the traditions of single female figures, the women were portrayed as voracious, distorted, and semi-abstract. According to the artist, he wanted to "create the angry humor of tragedy"; having the frantic look of the atomic age, a world in turmoil, a world in need of comic relief. Later, he said "Maybe ... I was painting the woman in me. Art isn't a wholly masculine occupation, you know. I'm aware that some critics would take this to be an admission of latent homosexuality ... If I painted beautiful women, would that make me a non-homosexual? I like beautiful women. In the flesh—even the models in magazines. Women irritate me sometimes. I painted that irritation in the Woman series. That's all." Such ideas could not be expressed by pure abstraction alone.[49] Some critics, however, see the Woman series as misogynistic.[50]

Although both the Academic tradition and Impressionists lost their cultural supremacy at the beginning of the twentieth century, the nude remained although transformed by the ideas of modernism. The idealized Venus was replaced by the woman intimately depicted in private settings, as in the work of Egon Schiele.[37] The simplified modern forms of Jean Metzinger, Amedeo Modigliani, Gaston Lachaise and Aristide Maillol recall the original goddesses of fertility more than Greek goddesses.[48] In early abstract paintings, the body could be fragmented or dismembered, as in Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon, but there are also abstracted versions of classical themes, such as Henri Matisse's dancers and bathers.

Woman III (1953) by Willem de Kooning, the human body in Abstract Expressionism
Jean Metzinger, 1911, Nu (Nu debout), oil on carton, 52 x 35 cm. Reproduced in Du "Cubisme", 1912
Sculpture of a Woman Standing by Gaston Lachaise, 1932
Standing Woman (1932) by Gaston Lachaise


In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, classical subjects remained popular, along with nudes in historical paintings. In the later nineteenth century, academic painters continued with classical themes, but were challenged by the Impressionists. Eduard Manet shocked the public of his time by painting nude women in contemporary situations in his Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (1863) and Olympia (1865), and Gustave Courbet earned criticism for portraying in his Woman with a Parrot a naked prostitute without vestige of goddess or nymph. Edgar Degas painted many nudes of women in ordinary circumstances, such as taking a bath.[46] Auguste Rodin challenged classical canons of idealization in his expressively distorted Adam.[47] With the invention of photography, artists began using the new medium as a source for paintings, Eugène Delacroix being one of the first.[37]

In the later Baroque or Rococo period, a more decorative and playful style emerged, exemplified by François Boucher's Venus Consoling Love, likely commissioned by Madame Pompadour.

In Baroque art, the continuing fascination with classical antiquity influenced artists to renew their approach to the nude, but with more naturalistic, less idealized depictions, perhaps more frequently working from live models.[37] Both genders are represented; the male in the form of heroes such as Hercules and Samson, and female in the form of Venus and the Three Graces. Peter Paul Rubens, who with evident delight painted women of generous figure and radiant flesh, gave his name to the adjective rubenesque.

The Three Graces (1636–1638) by Peter Paul Rubens

Baroque to Modern

Raphael in his later years is usually credited as the first artist to consistently use female models for the drawings of female figures, rather than studio apprentices or other boys with breasts added, who were previously used. Michelangelo's suspiciously boyish Study of a Kneeling Nude Girl for The Entombment (Louvre, c. 1500), which is usually said to be the first nude female figure study, predates this and is an example of how even figures who would be shown clothed in the final work were often worked out in nude studies, so that the form under the clothing was understood. The nude figure drawing or figure study of a live model rapidly became an important part of artistic practice and training, and remained so until the 20th century.

The Venus of Urbino (Titian, 1538), the Rokeby Venus (Diego Velázquez, c. 1650), Goya's Nude Maja (c. 1798) and Manet's Olympia (1863). Although they reflect the proportions of ancient statuary, such figures as Titian's Venus and the Lute Player and Venus of Urbino highlight the sexuality of the female body rather than its ideal geometry. In addition to adult male and female figures, the classical depiction of Eros became the model for the naked Christ child.[45]

The rediscovery of classical culture in the Renaissance restored the nude to art. Donatello made two statues of the Biblical hero David, a symbol for the Republic of Florence: his first (in marble, 1408–1409) shows a clothed figure, but his second, probably of the 1440s, is the first freestanding statue of a nude since antiquity,[44] several decades before Michelangelo's massive David (1501–04). Nudes in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling reestablished a tradition of male nudes in depictions of Biblical stories; the subject of the martyrdom of the near-naked Saint Sebastian had already become highly popular. The monumental female nude returned to Western art in 1486 with The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli for the Medici family, who also owned the classical Venus de' Medici, whose pose Botticelli adapted.

By the late medieval period female nudes intended to be attractive edged back into art, especially in the relatively private medium of the illuminated manuscript, and in classical contexts such as the Signs of the Zodiac and illustrations to Ovid. The shape of the female "Gothic nude" was very different from the classical ideal, with a long body shaped by gentle curves, a narrow chest and high waist, small round breasts, and a prominent bulge at the stomach (as in the Hugo van der Goes at left).[43] Male nudes tended to be slim and slight in figure, probably drawing on apprentices used as models, but were increasingly accurately observed.

Christian attitudes cast doubt on the value of the human body, and the Christian emphasis on chastity and celibacy further discouraged depictions of nakedness, even in the few surviving Early Medieval survivals of secular art. Completely unclothed figures are rare in medieval art, the notable exceptions being Adam and Eve and the damned in Last Judgement scenes, and the ideal forms of Greco-Roman nudes are completely lost, transformed into symbols of shame and sin, weakness and defenselessness.[40] This was true not only in Western Europe, but also in Byzantine art.[41] Increasingly, Christ was shown largely naked in scenes of his Passion, especially the Crucifixion,[42] and even when glorified in heaven, to allow him to display the wounds his sufferings had involved. The Nursing Madonna and naked "Penitent Mary Magdalene", well as the infant Jesus, whose penis was sometimes emphasized for theological reasons, are other exceptions with elements of nudity in medieval religious art.

Venus and the Lute Player (1565–1570) by Titian
Adam and Eve
The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli

Middle Ages and Renaissance

[39] The Greek goddess Aphrodite was a deity whom the Greeks preferred to see clothed. In the mid-fourth century BC, the sculptor [38] In Ancient Greece, where the mild climate was conducive to being lightly clothed or nude whenever convenient, and male athletes competed at religious festivals entirely nude, and celebrated the human body, it was perfectly natural for the Greeks to associate the male nude form with triumph, glory, and even moral excellence.

In the convention of heroic nudity, gods and heroes were shown naked, while ordinary mortals were less likely to be so, though athletes and warriors in combat were often depicted nude.

The earliest Greek sculpture, from the early Bronze Age Cycladic civilization consists mainly of stylized male figures who are presumably naked. This is certainly the case for the kouros, a large standing figure of a male nude that was the mainstay of Archaic Greek sculpture. The first realistic sculptures of nude males, the kouroi depict naked youths who stand rigidly posed with one foot forward.[31] By the fifth century BCE, Greek sculptors' mastery of anatomy resulted in greater naturalness and more varied poses. An important innovation was contrapposto—the asymmetrical posture of a figure standing with one leg bearing the body's weight and the other relaxed. An early example of this is Polykleitos' sculpture Doryphoros (ca. 440 BCE).[31]

Ancient Greece

Naked female figures called Venus figurines are found in very early prehistoric art, and in historical times, similar images represent fertility deities.[37] Representations of gods and goddesses in Babylonian and Ancient Egyptian art are the precursors of the works of Western antiquity. Other significant non-Western traditions of depicting nudes come from India, and Japan, but the nude does not form an important aspect of Chinese art. Temple sculptures and cave paintings, some very explicit, are part of the Hindu tradition of the value of sexuality, and as in many warm climates partial or complete nudity was common in everyday life. Japan had a tradition of mixed communal bathing that existed until recently, and was often portrayed in woodcut prints.


The nude has also been used to make a powerful social or political statement. An example is The Barricade by George Bellows, which depicts Belgian citizens being used as human shields by Germans in World War I. Although based upon a report of a real incident in which the victims were not nude, portraying them so in the painting emphasizes their vulnerability and universal humanity.[36]

Social commentary

The Barricade (1918), oil on canvas, by George Bellows. A painting inspired by an incident in August 1914 in which German soldiers used Belgian townspeople as human shields.

Until the 1960s, art history and criticism rarely reflected anything other than the male point of view. The feminist art movement began to change this, but one of the first widely known statements of the political messages in nudity was made in 1972 by the art critic John Berger. In Ways of Seeing, he argued that female nudes reflected and reinforced the prevailing power relationship between females portrayed in art and the predominantly male audience. A year later Laura Mulvey wrote "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" stating the concept of the male gaze, which asserts that all nudes are inherently voyeuristic.[35]

Modern reinterpretations

For Lynda Nead, the female nude is a matter of containing sexuality; in the case of the classical art history view represented by Kenneth Clark, this is about idealization and de-emphasis of overt sexuality, while the modern view recognizes that the human body is messy, unbounded, and problematical.[33] If a virtuous woman is dependent and weak, as was assumed by the images in classical art, then a strong, independent woman could not be portrayed as virtuous.[34]

In the 19th century the Orientalism movement added another reclining female nude to the possible subjects of European paintings, the odalisque, a slave or harem girl. One of the most famous was "The Grande Odalisque" painted by Ingres in 1814.[32]

Rarely seen during the Middle Ages, the female nude reappeared in Italy in the 15th century. Subsequently, eroticism became more emphatic in paintings such as Sleeping Venus (ca. 1510), which situated the reclining nude in an idyllic landscape, and Titian's Danaë series (ca. 1553–1556). These works inspired countless reclining female nudes for centuries afterwards.[31] The annual glut of paintings of idealized nude women in the 19th-century Paris Salon was satirized by Honoré Daumier in an 1864 lithograph.

The Greek goddesses were initially sculpted with drapery rather than nude. The first free-standing, life-sized sculpture of an entirely nude woman was the Aphrodite of Cnidus created ca. 360–340 BCE by Praxiteles.[31] The female nude became much more common in the later Hellenistic period.

Female nude: the Venus and Odalisques

For much of history, nude men represented martyrs and warriors, emphasizing an active role rather than the passive one assigned to women in art. Alice Neel and Lucien Freud painted the modern male nude in the classic reclining pose, with the genitals prominently displayed. Sylvia Sleigh painted versions of classic works with the genders reversed.

Academic art history tends to ignore the sexuality of the male nude, speaking instead of form and composition.[30]

Male nude: gods and warriors

Lithograph by Honoré Daumier
This year Venuses again...always Venuses! if there really were women built like that! (1864), lithograph by Daumier

Gender differences


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