Male Nudes in Art History
David (c.1435-53), Museo Nazionale
del Bargello, Florence (c.1440).
One of the greatest male nudes of the
Italian Renaissance: by Donatello.
Male Nude In Art History (c.600 BCE - present)
The first major culture to celebrate the importance of the male nude statue was that of ancient Greece, whose religious festivals frequently included athletic competitions in which young nude males demonstrated their physical prowess and competed for significant honours. Greek art mirrored Greek life, and thus from the early Archaic Age (600-500 BCE) the standing nude youth (kouros) became a regular image in the sculptural iconography of Classical Antiquity.
Some of the most famous male nudes were sculpted by unknown artists. They include: The Farnese Heracles (5th Century BCE), the fabulously balanced Zeus of Artemision (c.470), The Belvedere Apollo (330), The Dying Gaul (240) and the semi-relief The Barberini Faun (220). The greatest known Greek sculptors of standing male nude statues include: Polykleitos (5th century), Phidias (c.488-431 BCE), Myron (Active 480-444 BCE), Praxiteles (Active 375-335 BCE), and also Hagesandrus, Athenodoros & Polydorus (1st-2nd century BCE, creators of Laocoon and His Sons).
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Greek sculpture created a huge number of male nude statues (kouroi), representing either ordinary individuals - created as votive offerings for Gods in religious sanctuaries - or the Gods themselves.
It's important to realize that in creating nude men and women, Greek sculptors were typically celebrating an ideal - an ideal state of health, youth, and geometric proportion - rather than the physicality of a naked individual. Thus the Greek male nude was created to appeal to the mind rather than the senses.
While the Greeks admired and celebrated the male nude in both sculpture and painting, other parts of the ancient world took a very different view, and considered nakedness to be a sign of disgrace, and military defeat.
Although artists in ancient Rome were slavish imitators of the Greeks whom they considered to be far superior in all the visual arts, especially sculpture, they also followed the Roman doctrine that art should serve the interests of Rome, and promote its power. Nude Emperors were not likely to impress Barbarian tribesman, but tall, imposing soldiers might. Thus in Roman art, with some exceptions, idealized nudity was replaced with political and military imagery, exuding realism and gravitas.
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EVOLUTION OF SCULPTURE
Unfortunately for admirers of the kouros and the kore, and nude art in general, Christianity largely put a stop to it. A semi-nude Christ on the Cross was fine, but in general, Jesus, God, the apostles, other masculine Christian images, were depicted wearing clothes. This was in line with Gospel scripture and the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, whose nakedness was associated with shame and punishment. It also fitted with the general notion that nudity was seen as a threat to the spiritual well-being of the individual. The fact that nearly all Byzantine art was religious meant that nudity was even less acceptable. Occasional non-religious classical themes, such as those illustrated on a number of Byzantine ivory caskets, might include male nude imagery - sometimes quite detailed - but these were the exception. For more, see: Christian Art of the Byzantine Era (c.400-1200).
Note also that Byzantine religious culture forbad any three-dimensional human representations. Therefore, there was no sculpture in Byzantine art, and as a result much less call for male (or female) nudes. Also, Byzantine authorities saw their culture as a beacon of Christian goodness surrounded by pagan darkness. And because they associated nudity with the pagan Greeks, they saw it as something primitive and backward.
Male Nudes in Medieval European Art
Romanesque and Gothic art was dominated by sculpture, especially ecclesiastical stone sculpture, notably column statues - none of which featured any nudity. Until the Renaissance, the Christian Church was virtually the only major patron of the arts, financing almost all the monumental architecture, sculpture, painting and illuminated manuscripts in Europe. It had no need for images of naked Gods and thus discouraged the use of nudity in visual art, not least because of its emphasis on the values of celibacy and chastity. This stance effectively eliminated all study of the nude figure, as well as drawing from life. Rome, like Constantinople, considered nudity as undermining the spiritual and physical well-being of the individual.
The return to classical values and Greco-Roman culture during the Italian Renaissance reinstated the nude form (male and female) as the ideal standard of representational art. The male nude, in particular, was used in several iconic works of sculpture during this period, including the bronze statue of David (c.1435-53) by Donatello, and the marble sculptures Bacchus (1497), Dying Slave (1513-16) and David by Michelangelo. Later the Mannerist artist Giambologna produced his awesome Rape of the Sabine Women (1581-3). Other examples of nude male statues of the Renaissance include: Heracles and Cacus (1525-34) by Baccio Bandinelli; and Perseus (1545-54) by Benvenuto Cellini.
In painting, nudity became equally commonplace. Tommaso di Masaccio left all bare in his well known fresco Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1426) for the Brancacci Chapel, while Antonio Pollaiuolo did the same in his famous engraving Battle of the Ten Naked Men (1470-5). High Renaissance painting (c.1490-1530) witnessed the zenith of the male figure - Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel frescoes - a mass of religious images featuring male nudes of every size and shape - including his famous Creation of Adam who receives the "spark of life" from God; Luca Signorelli painted a host of male nudes in his 1504 Last Judgment fresco for the Dome of Orvieto Cathedral in Umbria; while Leonardo da Vinci used the male nude in his famous Vitruvian Man (c.1492). Some Northern Renaissance painters also embraced the male nude, notably Jan Van Eyck in his marvellous picture of Adam in the Ghent Altarpiece (1432), and Hieronymus Bosch in fantasy works like Garden of Earthly Delights (1510).
It is important to understand, however, that in Renaissance art, nudes were not the idealized and geometrically proportioned figures of classical Antiquity. They were real, individual, flesh-and-blood creations. For instance, the David by Michelangelo (1475-1564) is far from mathematical perfection, and, in fact, could hardly be more different from the slightly effeminate version of David by Donatello (1386-1466).
So what happened to Christian morality? Well, if it deferred to the genius of Michelangelo, it's fair to say that the Christian Church remained ambivalent, even antipathetic, toward the male and female nude. Indeed the Council of Trent (1545-63) attempted to halt the "licentious" and "paganizing" elements that they claimed had become so widespread in 15th and 16th-century religious art, under the influence of classical canons.
By 1600, Mannerism, the final phase of the Renaissance was over, but the latter's influence endured for at least three centuries. This was due to the fine art academies which sprang up across Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, to promote painting and sculpture. Their "academic art" placed great emphasis on drawing from the nude, and thus kept alive the figurative tradition of Michelangelo and others. However, in Baroque art, nudity was largely, though not wholly, confined to allegorical or mythological works. Rubens for example used the male nude in his mythological painting The Drunken Hercules (1614), Caravaggio used it in his picture Amor Vincit Omnia (1603), while Guercino (1591-1666) ("squinter") - in his picture portaying the seizure of Samson - painted Samson as the lone nude, unable to resist. In sculpture, Bernini set the standard of male nudity with works like Pluto and Proserpina (1621-2) and David (1623-4), followed by Pierre Puget (Milon of Croton, 1671-82), Francois Girardon (Pluto Abducting Proserpine, 1693-1710), and Balthasar Permoser (Apollo, 1715). Jean-Baptiste Pigalle caused a scandal with his magnificent nude statue of the aging Voltaire (1776).
Male Nudes in Rococo and Neoclassical Art
Male nudity was a regular feature of 18th century art, though perhaps less evident than female nudity - at least during the Rococo period. It was used mostly in history paintings (that is, works containing "istoria" or narrative, such as mythological pictures), in decorative schemes, and especially in sculpture. In Neoclassical art, sculptors like Antonio Canova (Apollo Crowning Himself, 1781; Perseus with the Head of Medusa, 1797-1801; Damoxenos, 1796; Hercules and Lichas, 1795-1815) modelled his sculptures on classical forms - his Perseus imitates the proportions and stance of the renowned Apollo Belvedere - as did John Flaxman (The Fury of Athamas). The French painter Jacques-Louis David also followed a traditional pose in his painting Male Nude Known as Patroclus (1779), as did Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres in his Oedipus and the Sphinx (1808). The great German painter and figurative draughtsman Anton Raphael Mengs also produced a number of outstanding male nudes, including his crayon and charcoal drawing Seated Nude as Cyclop (1770).
Male Nudes in 19th-Century Art
The 19th-century provided one final opportunity for the classical tradition of the male nude. Pierre-Charles Simart took full advantage with his marble masterpiece Orestes Sheltered in the Pallas Altar (1839-40). Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux used nudity in his sombre bronze Ugolino (1862), and Rodin produced masterpieces like The Age of Bronze (1876), The Thinker (1881) and The Kiss (1889), none of which conformed with the classical theory of proportions. An altogether more intimate style of male nude was conceived by the Belgian figurative sculptor George Minne, in works like Adolescent I (1891) and Kneeling Youth at the Fountain (1898), while the French artist Marius-Jean-Antonin Mercier produced a remarkable David (1872-3), with echoes of Donatello. Masculine nudity in 19th century painting was exemplified by vigorous images like Male Nude (1810-11) by Theodore Gericault.
Male Nudes in 20th-Century Art
Despite the advent of Cubism, Expressionism and other modern schools, and the consequent decline of the classical tradition, the male nude remains a potent symbol in 20th century fine art. In sculpture, male nudity is exemplified by Feral Benga (1935) by Richmond Barthe; The Storm (1947-8) by Germaine Richier; and the hyperrealist Couple (1971) by John De Andrea. In painting, the male nude is exemplified by numerous works of the great figurative genius Lucian Freud, such as Naked Man with a Rat (1977).
Although photography has latterly become accepted as a fine art, I would argue that the absence of barriers between the photographic print and the viewer places the medium in a significantly different category from painting and sculpture, which is why it is not covered here. But see also camera artists like Robert Mapplethorpe and others.
Top-10 Greatest Male Nudes in Art History
List compiled by our Editor, Neil Collins LLB MA, who also selected our lists of Greatest Paintings: Top 300, and Greatest Sculptures: Top 100.
Kneeling Youth at the Fountain (1898)
9. The Dying Gaul (c.240)
8. Orestes Sheltered in the Pallas Altar
7. Jason with the Golden Fleece ((1803-28)
6. Perseus with the head of Medusa (1545-54)
5. Apollo Sauroktonos (4th Century)
of the Sabine Women (1581-3)
3. Apollo Crowning Himself (1781)
by Michelangelo (1501-4)
by Donatello (c.1440)
For a list of the Top 50 Portraits, see: Greatest Portrait Paintings.
For more about the different types
of paintings, see: Painting Genres.
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