The Three Graces (1813-16)
Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.
Sublime neoclassical sculpture
by Antonio Canova.
Top 20 Female Nudes (c.600 BCE - present)
Art of Classical
The standing male nude (kouros) first became important in the sculpture of ancient Greece, which associated the male body with athletic prowess and moral excellence. However, attitudes towards female nudity were different. The female body was associated with the divinity of procreation, and for almost five centuries, the Greeks preferred to see the standing female (kore) clothed. Then in the 4th century BCE sculptor Praxiteles carved a naked Aphrodite, known as the Cnidian Aphrodite, which established a new aesthetic tradition for the female form. Quite unlike the exaggerated forms of Middle Eastern fertility figurines, the Cnidian Aphrodite was created using idealized proportions based on mathematical ratios. A self-protective pose added to her modesty. This ideal version of the Greek female nude - designed to appeal to the mind as well as the senses - was later also adopted by Hellenistic Greco-Roman art but mostly discarded during the Pax Romana, from about 50 CE.
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The finest Greek sculptors of female nude statues include: Polykleitos (5th century), Phidias (c.488-431 BCE), Myron (Active 480-444 BCE), Praxiteles (Active 375-335 BCE), and Hagesandrus, Athenodoros & Polydorus (1st-2nd century BCE).
Note: Predating Greek art by perhaps two Millennia, the Harappan culture of India's Indus Valley Civilization (3,000-1,000 BCE), was one of the first cultures to produce nude bronzes. One of its finest bronze works is The Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-Daro, a 6-inch statuette, cast about 2,500 BCE, using the lost wax method. An extraordinary piece of early Indian sculpture from the Asian bronze age.
In Medieval Byzantine art, a Christian culture from the outset, the importance of the female nude was much diminished. Byzantine Christian iconography might include images of a crucified Christ in a loincloth, but only to better represent Christ's physical suffering and humiliating death. As for female nudity, this was very rarely seen in paintings or mosaic art from the Byzantine era, being mostly associated either with feelings of guilt and shame, or with low-brow humour. Besides, as far as Byzantine culture was concerned, the naked male and female were too closely aligned with pagan Greek culture.
By the time of the glorious era of Gothic Art, attitudes to female nakedness in paintings, sculpture, stained glass and other types of art, had hardened further. Nudity became sinful, as illustrated in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Moreover, early Christian emphasis on chastity discouraged depictions of nakedness even further. Paradoxically, however, Gothic artists (including cathedral sculptors and the Duke of Berry's Limbourg brothers) were permitted to resort to female nudity in the name of "purity", of a virginal idea of the body and the symbolization of "nuda veritas". Another of the few celebrated female nudes of the time - the polychrome wooden sculpture St Mary Magdalene, also known as "La Belle Allemande" - was created by the Late Gothic wood carver Gregor Erhart in Augsburg, Germany.
The rediscovery of Greco-Roman cultural values during the Italian Renaissance returned the female nude to the forefront of creativity, in both fine art painting and sculpture. And figurative masters like Botticelli (Birth of Venus, 1484; and Allegory of Spring, 1482), Giorgione (Sleeping Venus, 1510); Titian (Venus of Urbino, 1538; Venus with a Mirror, 1555) and Jacopo Robusti Tintoretto (Susanna and the Elders, 1556) were not content to restrict themselves to idealized female nudes based on set mathematical proportions: they wanted to capture the natural full-bodied beauty of women - in short, seductive warmth became more important than correct geometry.
Northern Renaissance painters proved equally receptive. The progressive Dutch oil painter Jan Van Eyck had already pioneered naturalism in his painting of Eve (and Adam) as part of the Ghent Altarpiece (1425-32), while the extraordinary Dutchman Hieronymus Bosch used female nudity ( Hay Wain Triptych, 1500; Garden of Earthly Delights, 1510) to reinforce his apocalyptic visions of sin and divine judgment. Mythological painting populated by female figures was also an important element in the output of both Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) and Hans Baldung Grien (1484-1545). Italian Renaissance sculpture abounds with Greek-like male bodies, but fewer female nudes. Good examples include works by the Mannerists Jacopo Sansovino (Venus and Cupid, 1550), and Giambologna (The Rape of the Sabine, 1581-3).
None of this means that Christian morality had changed. Indeed, if it deferred to the creative talents of Titian and others, the Christian Church remained decidedly guarded, even antipathetic, toward the use of male and female nudes in public painting and sculpture, especially in churches. So it was no surprise that the Council of Trent (1545-63) attempted to halt the "licentious" and "paganizing" elements that they claimed had become so widespread in Renaissance art, under the influence of classical canons.
The Renaissance maintained its influence through the establishment of a European network of fine art academies, where drawing from life (that is, sketching a live nude figure, or copying a Greek sculpture) was promoted as the main technique for learning how to draw and paint. In his ample (Rubenesque) female nudes (The Three Graces, 1638 and others), Rubens proved himself a worthy successor to Titian. Rembrandt, too, uses natural proportions (Danae, 1636; Bathsheba, 1654), and infuses his female forms with typical vitality and humanism, as does the sculptor Bernini (Pluto and Proserpina, 1622; Apollo and Daphne, 1625).
Female nakedness becomes more playful and suggestive in Rococo art, notably in works by Jean-Antoine Watteau (The Judgment of Paris, 1721), Francois Boucher (Odalisque, 1745; Reclining Girl, 1751) and Jean-Honore Fragonard (The Blouse Removed, 1770), and by the sculptor Etienne-Maurice Falconet (Bather, 1757; Flora, 1770). Images of the Neoclassical female nude were exemplified by sculptors like Joseph Nollekens (Venus, 1773) and others, who reverted to antique forms and poses.
During the nineteenth-century, painters tended to place their female nudes in extraordinary settings, far removed from the everyday. See for example, the classic Renaissance figures of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (The Valpincon Bather, 1808; La Grande Odalisque, 1814); the fantasy images of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (The Tepidarium, 1881) and Richard Mauch (The Knight's Dream, 1902). Compare these with scandalous oil paintings by Francisco Goya (Naked Maja, 1800), Edouard Manet (Le Dejeuner sur L'Herbe, 1863; Olympia, 1863) and the uncomfortably realist artist Gustave Courbet (Le Sommeil, 1866; L'Origine du Monde, 1866). Contrast also the everyday matter-of-fact nudes of Edgar Degas (After the Bath, 1884; The Tub, 1886; Woman Having her Hair Combed, 1886), with the angst-ridden nude figures of Edvard Munch (Puberty, 1893; The Madonna, 1894-5). The Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir proved to be the 19th-century follower of Rubens, with his full-bodied Seated Female Nude (1876) and Female Nude in a Landscape (1883).
Even though the academic tradition lost its cultural supremacy in the twentieth century, the the nude has remained a constant feature in modern or contemporary art. Artists like Paul Cezanne (Les Grandes Baigneuses, 1900-6), Pablo Picasso (Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907), Amedeo Modigliani (Reclining Nude, 1917 and others), and Gustav Klimt (Adam and Eve, 1918) all used the female nude as part of their style, as did all the German Expressionist groups. The sharp realism of the brilliant Viennese draughtsman Egon Schiele (Nude Girl with Crossed Arms, 1910; Woman Undressing, 1917) was exceeded by the naked superrealism of Lucian Freud (Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1977; Esther, 1980), and then by the bulging figures of Jenny Saville (Branded, 1992). But see also the semi-abstract nudes of Willem de Kooning (Seated Woman, 1944). Meanwhile in 20th century photography the female nude is exemplified by the edgy imagery of Helmut Newton (1920-2004). In 20th-century sculpture, anatomical realism was exemplified by the polyester and bronze nudes of contemporary American photorealist artist John De Andrea (Couple, 1971), Model in Repose (1981, National Galleries of Scotland), Untitled Bronze #1 (1984, Chazen Museum of Art) and Sphinx (1987). The voyeuristic tradition was maintained by Balthus (The Guitar Lesson, 1934 and The Room, 1952), the Swedish Impressionist Anders Zorn (Girls From Dalarna Having a Bath, 1908), and the German artist Gerhard Richter (Ema: Nude on a Staircase, 1966), and the fantasy idiom by the Magic Realist Paul Delvaux (The Hands, The Dream, 1941).
For an explanation of 20th century nudes, like those produced by Modigliani and other modernists, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).
The following list of paintings and sculptures was compiled personally by our Editor, Neil Collins LLB MA, who also chose our Greatest Paintings: Top 300, and Greatest Sculptures: Top 100, and Greatest Portrait Paintings.
20. Two Girls in the Grass (1919)
19. Portrait of Ida Rubinstein (1910)
18. Aphrodite of Knidos (Knidian/Colonna
Venus) (c.350 BCE)
17. Marcella (1909-10)
16. Semi-Nude Woman with Hat (1911)
15. Olympia (1863)
14. Naked Maja (1800)
13. The Birth of Venus (1879)
12. The Rokeby Venus (1650)
11. The Judgment of Paris (1720-1)
10. Nude (Black and Gold) (1908)
9. Woman Bitten by a Snake (1847)
8. The Valpincon Bather (1808)
7. Birth of Venus (1484)
6. Venus of Urbino (1538)
5. Untitled Bronze #1 (1984)
4. Nude (1912)
3. The Graces (1813-16)
2. Bashsheba with King David's Letter
1. Figure of Eve: the Ghent Altarpiece
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART