A Very Brief History of the Female Nude in Western Art

I had a great conversation with my friend Christina the other day.  After having read my post about the Overland Park Arboretum controversy, she told me that she is drawn to the female nude in her own art, and it sounds like she is exploring the various potential implications of it.  We talked about how a lot of people automatically equate nudity with sexuality and how there is so much more to it than that.  A couple of my favorite contemporary artists paint female nudes, adding to the complex history of this important subject.


Christina Russell, Brokeness, 2009

When it came to female nudes, the ancient Greeks were basically like, “Nah.”  Believe it or not, this has nothing to do with their sexual preferences.  Sculptures of male youths were symbols of physical prowess and moral fortitude.  The nudity allowed the chiseled muscles to stand for greater ideals of youth and perfection, rather than depicting a particular individual.  Women were considered little more than babymakers/homemakers, so these ideals were supposedly not applicable to them.  They were also not allowed to attend, let alone participate in, the Olympic Games and other athletic contests….which were performed in the nude (don’t you think viewership of the Olympics would increase if we brought back this tradition?).  Later Hellenistic Greek and Roman artists come around and start to depict the female nude, mostly as Aprhodite or Venus, the goddess of love.

In the Middle Ages, there wasn’t a lot of female nudity because: SIN!  Sometimes you see the Virgin Mary’s breasts, symbolizing her important role as the mother of Christ.  But it’s not until the Renaissance that the female nude really comes into her own.  One of the first large-scale female nudes of the Renaissance is Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.  Botticelli creates parallels between the pagan Venus and Christian Mary, paving the way for a long line of artists using mythology as justification for female nudity.

In the 19th century, female nudity is often used for symbolic or allegorical means.  For example, although Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People looks like she might just be having a Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction,” her partial nudity lets the educated viewer know that she stands  for a greater ideal in the Greek tradition.  In this case, she is not a portrait of anyone in particular, but an allegory of Liberty and a symbol of the 1830 July Revolution.

Liberte, Fraternite, and Nudite!

Sometimes, though, this has worked in reverse.  Sometimes 19th-century artists just wanted to paint sexy, naked bodies and used mythological themes to make the nudity seem more intellectual and acceptable.  Academic artists like Bouguereau painted pretty, soft-focus Venuses so that the bourgeoisie could justify looking at nudie pics.

This is exactly the kind of nonsense that Manet wanted to parody when he painted The Luncheon on the Grass.  Is it silly for a nude young woman to have a picnic with two clothed Bohemian guy friends?  Um, yeah.  Is it any sillier than the standard at the time to paint a pastel pagan goddess surrounded by putti and conch-blowing mermen?  Not really.  Notice below that the young lady’s clothes are a very fashionable 1860s style and that they’re sitting next to her on the grass—indicating that she was not born, inherently nude, of the sea foam.  No, she (gasp) disrobed!  This caused quite the scandal at the time but created a new freedom in depicting the female nude.

Modern artists like Picasso and Duchamp used the female nude—which by the 20th century was a well-established traditional subject—for radical experiments in form.  Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase #2 is a study of time and space, but it was one of the most controversial works of the 20th century, mostly because American audiences at the Armory Show had trouble making out the female form mentioned in the title.

Contemporary artist Jenny Saville paints the female form in ways that are often intentionally unflattering in order to explore identity and cultural expectations.  In Plan from 1993 she inscribes plastic surgeon’s marks on her own body, which appears larger than life due to forced perspective.  Check out more of her art here, and learn more about her intent here.

Lisa Yuskavage is a contemporary painter whose influences include Walter Keane (you know, those kitschy sad-eyed kids from the 1970s) and Penthouse.  In her pendant paintings Night and Day from 1999-2000, her grossly exaggerated figures bust stereotypes like the Madonna/Whore dichotomy.  Her heroines are proportioned like Barbies but painted as meticulously as Vermeers.  Read a great interview with her here.

It amazes me that nudity in art still has so much power to offend after being used to create so many different meanings throughout the centuries.



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