Life Study: The Nude in Art - a Brief History

The Nude in Art - a Brief History

Ellen Graves
former Associate Lecturer in the Arts
Open University in Scotland

Perhaps the history of the nude in art, which traditionally begins with the heroic male of Greek art of the classical period (6th - 5th century BC), should be pushed back to around 30-25,000 BC. This is the date of the tiny statuette, probably designed to be held in the hand, popularly called the Willendorf Venus and depicting a corpulent female. Like much early art, she was almost certainly a fertility symbol of some kind. Indian temple art, some dating from at least the 1st century BC, often depicts voluptuous female nudes. Again, these erotic figures had a serious religious function, representing various manifestations of fertility deities. With the emergence of the male nude in Greek art, however, we are dealing with a rather different phenomenon, a figure of ideal proportions used both as a way of memorialising real people and as a portrayal of Gods and godlike mythical heroes - the ideal heroic nude. Both male Kouroi and female Korai statues exist in Greece from c.625 BC. These were funerary or votive statues and the male ones were nude, whereas the female ones, obviously based on male templates, were clothed, clearly not deploying life models in their making.

In fact, to discuss the role of the nude in art, it's probably best to start with two qualifiers. One is that historically, with a few exceptions, the nude is mainly a phenomenon of Western art. The other is that from very early on, the nude male and the nude female are treated quite differently and have different roles to play. The male nude body in Greek sculpture was used both for portrayals of ideal heroes - gods and idealised portraits of real heroes, notably the champions at the Olympic games. This brings up another basic aspect of the nude in art, its sometimes uneasy relationship to sexual desire. The entrenched homo-eroticism of ancient Greek society clearly has a good deal to do with the pre-eminence of the heroic male nude. In fact, around the 4th century BC, Praxitales and other sculptors did begin depicting nude females, notably the goddess of love, Aphrodite. But it remained indecorous for female portraits to depict nudity. More generally, a double standard where male and female nudity was concerned, persisted through the period of Roman sculpture and, indeed, right up to modern times, though its terms of reference frequently changed.

After the rise of Christianity, portrayal of nudes in the west decreased drastically. Virtually the only permissible nudity for centuries, in fact, was in religious art, with painted and sculpted depictions of Adam and Eve (though they were often discreetly draped) and in some Last Judgment scenes. Nudity was used in such art as a signifier of shame, but there is some evidence that figures such as the naked damned in hell, for instance, could also evoke humour. These figures could therefore function as amusing footnotes, comic relief as it were - a far cry from the open and frequent display of perfect nude bodies in ancient Greece for the delectation of viewers.

With the rediscovery of classical antiquity starting in the 13th century in Italy, nudity began once again to become a respectable and indeed, a major theme in the visual arts. Such artists as Nicola Pisano in the 13th century and Giotto in the 14th, started showing an awareness of the classical nude. In the 15th century, drawing from life became part of workshop practice (though women were not used as models - as in the case of the Korai, women depicted in art were modified males), and, as the 16th century dawned, artists such as Leonardo became seriously interested in anatomy. But now, and indeed for several centuries thereafter in Italy, the idealised nude was still the sought-after norm, used mainly for depicting grand historical scenes, both mythological and religious, with connotations of heroism and virtue. Michelangelo's acclaimed sculpted and painted nudes were adjudged the highest achievement in this sphere. They were perfected shapes rather than naturalistic, and overwhelmingly male, with his female figures again being clearly modified male templates.

Other Italian artists such as Titian, however, began depicting female nudes in real earnest in the 16th century, sometimes using them as an evocation of a lost Golden Age, in scenes other than narrative history paintings, where landscape came to play a much more prominent role than in previous paintings. It was at this time that the first Art Academies began to be founded in Italy. It is not clear whether female models were used in these academies, however, or in the workshops which were still deployed by such artists as Titian, though male models had been used since quite early on. In such works as the Poesie for Philip II (two of which are now in the Scottish National Gallery), Titian's nudes became increasingly sensual, though still idealised. Meanwhile, in the North with its different artistic tradition, the use of nudes exclusively in religious art had persisted through the beginning of the 16th century, though their bodies were clearly designed to a different ideal of beauty, particularly the females. But with increasing Italian influence, such Northern artists as Franz Floris started depicting pagan scenes of naked nymphs and shepherds, recognisably drawn to much more classicising proportions.

With the 17th century, a somewhat more naturalistic depiction of the nude started to be seen, in such Baroque paintings as Artemisia Gentileschi's Susanna and the Elders, or (more well-known) the art of Caravaggio; here sensual male nudity comes to the fore, in such paintings as Victorious Love. In sculpture, Bernini created highly dramatic nude works such as his David. The northern artist Rubens, however, was perhaps the pre-eminent artist of the nude female in the 17th century. He admired antique and Italian Renaissance art but his nudes, though highly sensual, are much more naturalistic - and abundantly endowed! - than their still quite idealised Italian counterparts. They were still used primarily in grand history paintings, depicting mythological and Biblical subjects, and continued to be so used by more classicising artists of the 17th century.

In the 18th century, the nude began to be depicted in more frivolous surroundings by Rococo artists such as Boucher, favoured artist of Mme de Pompadour, Louis XV's mistress. His Reclining Nude is, in fact, thought to be a portrait of another royal mistress!

It seems clear that these painters did routinely now use female models for their female nudes, but the great Academies such as the French Académie Royale did not use female models as much as males until later, in the 19th century. Interestingly, female models were routinely used in the many small Academies founded in Britain before the Royal Academy came into being in 1768. There is an example depicting a group of female models by the great 17th century portraitist Lely, and a sketch by Hogarth of a female model, done around 1735. This practice reflects the greater popularity of the female nude in Britain. The male nude, universally popular in the history painting that comprised the most prestigious genre on the Continent, seems not to have been very acceptable in British art until the later 18th century, when the Royal Academy (with its ambitions to create a market for history painting in Britain) instituted regular life drawing classes. British art thus began to deploy the same sort of vocabulary for figurative painting as was used on the Continent, with heroic male nudity becoming commoner, in such large-scale works as Gavin Hamilton's Death of Patroclus (also in the Scottish National Gallery).

Nevertheless, in Britain the strongest tradition remained the portrayal of the female nude, and one of its foremost apostles was the artist William Etty, a fine example of whose work is depicted in this exhibition. Etty was in fact one of the major influences on Delacroix's depictions of the female nude in paintings such as the Death of Sardanopolis (1827). As the 19th century progressed and French painting came into ascendancy, the female nude became pre-eminent in French art also, both in Academic painting and sculpture and in such rebellious works as that of the Realist artist Courbet, whose realistically heavy-hipped females revolted viewers attuned to the idealised, airbrushed nudes of such Academic painting as Cabanel's Birth of Venus. With Manet's infamous Olympia (1863), the deliberate use of nudity to shock rather than to idealise and titillate, begins to come into its own. Here a recognisable portrait of a famous model, Victorine Meurent, is rendered in a pose deliberately evocative of Titian's Venus of Urbino, but the model looks out defiantly at the viewers.*  Photography greatly aided artists in depicting figures as it sometimes enabled them to do away with lengthy modelling sessions (Delacroix is known to have started using photographs in this way, very early on). But photography was also used as pornography almost from its earliest beginnings, and this dual aspect of nudity continued to develop as art became more and more inclusive, and further and further away from the idealised canon of the Academies.

As the 19th century continued and the Impressionists came into their own, the female nude continued to be very popular. Renoir's nudes, with their glowing, satiny sensuousness, in fact seem to revive the spirit of Rubens, but they are depicted in the settings of modern life so beloved by the Impressionists, rather than as figures in mythological stories. Degas takes a somewhat less sentimental view of his nudes, often depicting them in very humble surroundings indeed. Some of the Post-Impressionists, however, such as Matisse in his Joie de Vivre, tried to unite a revival of classicising themes as a setting for their nudes, with the use of new techniques, non-representational colour, etc.

With Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) however, we see again a deliberate subversion of the classical idealising tradition of the female nude. He depicts four prostitutes, drawn in near-Cubist, unnaturalistic outlines, in provocative poses and wearing the faces of ancient Iberian sculpture and grotesque African masks, framed with a deadpan classicising swag of drapery. But later, in the 1920s and indeed at times throughout his long career, Picasso returns to the classical and Renaissance traditions of the nude, with its associations with a bygone Golden Age. Indeed, the history of the nude in Western art often seems to be a recurring dialogue - sometimes intimate, sometimes abusive - with classical art, when the nude was the natural mode of being for artists' depiction of the human figure.

In contemporary art, with our modern knowledge from Freudian psychology of submerged (or not so submerged) sexual urges just beneath the surface of human life, depictions of nudity seem more and more often to be deliberately obscuring the fine line between art and pornography. Egon Schiele's wonderful drawings often inhabit this territory. But Lucien Freud, one of the foremost British painters of nudes, oddly seems to hark back to the dialogue referred to above. His unsparing lack of any idealisation of his subjects' bodies, strangely, often accentuates their vulnerability. Combined with their contemplative presence (Freud doesn't work from photos) this gives them an elegiac quality. And finally, any trace of double standards for male and female nudes seems to have gone. Some of the new generation of neo-realist figurative artists in Scotland, such as Jenny Saville, are continuing the tradition of the nude, in a way which bodes well for the future of this particular area of subject-matter.


*2015 addendum: Recent research has shown that Victorine Meurent was also a respected artist in her own right; it seems likely that her direct gaze thus challenges sexist and classist attitudes alike (she was from a working-class background).


Bignamini, I and Postle, M The Artist's Model, Nottingham University, 1991
Dehejia, V Indian Art, Phaidon, 1997
Perry, G (ed) Gender and Art, Yale University Press, 1999
Rodgers, D 'The Nude', Grove Dictionary of Art, 1995
Stewart, A, 'Greek Sculpture' in M Kemp, ed, The Oxford History of Western Art, Oxford University Press, 2000

Copyright Ellen Graves 2003

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