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Emergence and development of nude art across the ages

- 16/11/2021
nude art and painting nude art at carré d'artistes
Nude art : simple expression of human beauty or powerful tool of artistic liberation ? Explore how nudity has been used in Western art across the centuries.

The origins and evolution of nudity in art


Since time immemorial, people have always fallen for the charms of the human body.
From Botticelli’s Venus to Modigliani’s Red Nude, artists have consistently found in nudity a powerful source of inspiration to express beauty, sensuality and danger.

When and how did nude art emerge ?

The beginnings of nude art are traditionally dated back to 30,000 - 25,000 BCE. This range coincides with the discovery of The Venus of Willendorf, a small statuette carved from an oolitic limestone and tinted with red ochre, representing a corpulent female body. Although the exact meaning and role of this sculpture remains a mystery, the Venus is said to embody a mother goddess or a fertility figure.

However, the true birth and emergence of an artistic nude identity is often credited to Greek civilisations. Greek art can indeed be defined as a philosophical and artistic exploration of the beauty of human self. With artists purposely representing perfectly proportioned athletic unclothed men, the use of nudity in Greek art aimed both at memorialising the beauty of humain features and at portraying the perfection of heroes and gods.

The following centuries, nudity in art has been progressively limited to religious artwork. In Western civilisations, paintings of Last Judgment scenes started proliferating among the artistic community. In early Christian art, such paintings often depicted the risen Christ as the judge of saved and damned souls, and nude art was consequently referred to as a symbol of shame and sin. Eventually, nudity was reintroduced in artistic works at the beginning of the 13th century.


What is the role of nude in art ?


The role of nudity in art has not always been to portray and idealise humans and gods. Of course, the human body is beautiful and intriguing, which has always made it an ideal artistic subject. For instance, the 13th and 14th centuries perfectly embody the italien rediscovery of nudity as an expression of human beauty. Inspired by classical sculpture and the study of human models, Renaissance artists also created realistic and vibrant representations of the human body, placing the grace of nudity at the heart of their work. Historically used for illustrating grand mythological, heroical and religious scenes, nude art still today largely seeks the idealisation of human beauty.

The use of nudity in art is also a fantastic way to express emotions and to deliver powerful messages.
The human body is indeed one of the very rare things in life that binds us, humans, together on this earth. In that sense, nudity in art can sometimes be a beautiful reminder of our commonality, no matter our skin color, gender, culture or education. Hence, artists from all times have often used nudity to express universal truths, ideas and concepts.

More than just a delicate approach to express beauty and emotions, the human body is also a fabulous subject to study and work on.
On an artistic level, human features can be seen as a smooth and harmonious whole of shapes, which makes nudity a great way to exert artists’ creativity and imagination. From a more scientific point of view, nude art was part of a wider movement towards realism in art.
By trying to replicate in the most accurate way the proportions and realistic features of the human body, artists such as Leonardo da Vinci with its Vitruvian Man have indeed helped explaining and confirming entire civilisations’ comprehension of the human anatomy. Underlying these methods also lied the eternal desire to portray the beauty and aesthetic of human nature.

What about female nude in art ?


During the Renaissance, other famous Italian artists such as Giorgione developed a new, sensual approach in female nude representation.
With suggestive artworks representing unclothed women, artists purposely started to blur the line between goddesses and contemporary women.
As the heirs of a culture of poetry and mythology, Italian painters of the 16th century produced artworks which embodied the love and eroticism that flourished in the Renaissance movement. Titian’s Venus of Urbino and Venus with an Organist and Cupid are a perfect illustration of female nudity used in the 17th century as a sensual evocation of the lost Golden Age.

While Titian, Giorgione and Correggio contributed to make female nudity one of the most popular themes in European art, female models have not been used as much as males by great European Academies until the next decade. For instance, unlike British Academies which started to regularly use female models in the 18th century, the French Académie Royale waited the 19th century to balance the use of male and female models in their work. British artists such as William Etty thus illustrate the earlier popularity of female nude art in Britain compared to its southern European neighbours.

Female nude art then continued to grow in popularity with the emergence of impressionism at the end of the 19th century.
French painters such as Auguste Renoir or Edgar Degas each represented female nudity with differing biases : the first being for instance precise and delicate, the other assuming a less sentimental point of view.

The 20th century finally marked the area of liberation and assumed provocation. Picasso’s four Avignon prostitutes deliberately painted in provocative poses embody the rejection of the traditional idealisation of the female body. Eventually, the latter adopted more classical positions in other artworks throughout his life, thus illustrating the endless duality of Western nude painters between their desire to transcend accepted ideas and their classical roots.

NF131 - Loussouarn Michèle

nf131 nude art by carré d'artistes

Why does nude art cause controversy ?


Historically, nude art is mainly a subject that has been addressed in Western art. And if nudity was no newcomer to the modern art world, Edouard Manet’s naked Olympia painted in 1865 has already drawn criticism in her time.
Unsurprisingly though, nude art is still a controversial topic more than a century later.

For centuries, nudity has been as fascinating as disturbing for both artists and people. And one of the reasons explaining this ambiguous relationship with nudity lies in details of paramount importance. Indeed, some think the offense of nudity is often caused by the recognisable aspect of subjects that started to emerge in the 20th century, as nude portraits entered the domestic space. For instance, Philip Wilson Steer’s « Black Hat » was often criticised and depicted as a provocative way to accentuate the nudity of the woman on the portrait.

2 pieces of nude art you need to know

David - Donatello

This artwork created between 1430 and 1450 is considered to be the first bronze male nude since antiquity. David is a statue that was carved in bronze and represents David with an enigmatic smile, entirely naked except for his helmet and boots.

The Birth of Venus - Botticelli (1485)

Often referred to as one of art history’s most famous nudes, this painting represents the arrival of the goddess Venus on the island of Cyprus after her birth.
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