Revealing complex emotions, cultural traditions, philosophical questions and formal ideals, the nude has played a powerful role in the history of Western art. Let’s take a closer look.
The nude awakening
While the first nudes can be traced back to Venus figurines in prehistoric times, it was in ancient Greece that the nude really came into its own. Used predominantly in Greek sculpture, the male nude portrayed ideal heroes – gods, as well as celebrities of the Olympic games. And the female nude first began to appear in the 4th Century, with Praxiteles’ depiction of Aphrodite – the goddess of love. John Samuel Agar’s etchings capture these idealised forms depicted in Greco-Roman statues.
Marble Statue, PL. XXXVII – J.S. Agar
The nude renaissance
With the rise of Christianity, changing attitudes and newfound ideals of chastity and celibacy cast doubt over the appropriateness of the unclothed figure. And so commenced a period, during the Middle Ages, when the nude was practically cast into non-existence, with the exception of religious depictions such as those of Adam and Eve. The rediscovery of classical culture during the Renaissance, brought the nude back to a central position in art. Donatello’s famous statue of David, reused the idealised proportions of Greek athletic figures – presenting a biblical figure in classical guise. Later, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling reestablished the tradition of male nudes in biblical stories.
Creation of Adam – Michelangelo
The female nude returned to favor too, with painters depicting Venus in her many guises. In Italian Renaissance paintings, such as Alessandro Allori’s Venus and Cupid and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, the female form is voluptuous and well proportioned depicting Italian renaissance ideals. Compare it to Cupid Complaining to Venus by the German painter, Lucas Cranach the Elder, where the slender figure portrays more Northern European conventions of female beauty.
Venus and Cupid – Alessandro Allori
The nude au naturel
Working from live models during the Baroque period, the nude took on a more naturalised, less idealistic form. The Three Nudes by Rubens, with curvaceous figures and radiant skin is typical. A more playful style also emerged towards the end of the 18th century, take Boucher’s painting of Venus or Fuger’s depiction of Poseidon as examples. Classical and mythological paintings remained popular throughout this period, with some of the finest examples of storytelling exemplified in Rembrandt’s painting of Bathsheba Bathing.
The Three Graces – Peter Paul Rubens
In the 19th century nudes became more risque. Edouard Manet shocked with his depiction of a naked prostitute in Olympia as did Gustave Courbet, while Degas portrayed females in the nude in ordinary, unglamourised settings, such as After the bath woman drying her neck.
Olympia – Edouard Manet
The new nude
The nude was transformed during the 20th century. Gone were the days of idealised gods and perfect heroes in their place were much more honest portrayals of the nude in private settings. Egon Schiele provides some of the most unflinching examples. Simplifying, distorting and looking at the human body through new eyes, Amedeo Modigliani, Henri Matisse and Picasso all brought fresh perspectives and new ideas to the modern nude.
Blue Nude I – Henri Matisse
The nude now
The nude remains a constant feature in contemporary art but also our everyday. Beautified and sexualised images saturate the media, internet and TV to the point that we’re becoming desensitized to images of the naked body. More than ever we need to define what constitutes the difference between naked and nude. Kenneth Clark, one time director of the National Gallery, sums it up so perfectly: “to be naked is to be deprived of our clothes…The word ‘nude’ on the other hand carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone.”
Patricia Schmid – Mario Testino
Browse our collection of nudes here.