Tag Archives: Rubens

Research point- Depiction of nudes over the centuries

It was the art historian Kenneth Clark Kenneth_Clark who maintained that there is a difference between nakedness and nudity.  A naked human body is exposed, vulnerable, embarrassing, he wrote in his 1956 book The Nude. “The word ‘nude’, on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled and defenceless body, but of a balanced, prosperous and confident body … “

The nude has been a recurrent theme in art ever since man started to draw.  The nude had a place in cave drawings, ancient Greek and Roman art, and more recently in European art.  The depiction of the nude tends to follow the social mores of the geographical area and the era.

In the paleolithic era, an  early depiction of the female figure was the Venus von Willendorf (24,000-22,000BC)  In early civilizations the main dominant gods were of female deities symbolizing the power of motherhood, fertility and creation.


The ancient Greeks and Romans accepted nudity as a fact of life and were not worried by it.  Particularly the nude male body was revered, especially as a god, sportsman or warrior.  Statues had an idealised idea of beauty and proportion.  Mid 4th century BC started seeing female nudes- also based on ideal proportions. The


Aphrodite of Knidos was one of the most famous works of the ancient GreeksculptorPraxiteles of Athens (4th century BC), famous for its beauty,   meant to be appreciated from every angle, and for being the first life-size representation of the nude female form. It depicted the goddess Aphrodite as she prepared for the ritual bath that restored her purity (not virginity), discarding her drapery in her left hand, while modestly shielding herself with her right hand.

Medieval Christian attitudes cast doubt on the value of the human body, and the Christian emphasis on chastity and celibacy further discouraged depictions of nakedness, even in the few surviving Early Medieval pieces of secular art. Completely unclothed figures are rare in medieval art, the notable exceptions being Adam and Eve and the damned in Last Judgement scenes. The ideal forms of Greco-Roman nudes are completely lost, transformed into symbols of shame and sin.

The rediscovery of classical culture in the Renaissance restored the nude to art.  Donatello’s second statue of David, probably of the 1440s,was the first freestanding statue of a nude since antiquity- several decades before Michelangelo’s David (1501–04).


Nudes in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings reestablished a tradition of male nudes in depictions of Biblical stories


Creation of Adam– Michelangelo- Fresco- sistine chapel (1512)

The female nude finally returned to Western art in 1486 with The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli


In Baroque art, the continuing fascination with classical antiquity influenced artists to renew their approach to the nude, but in more natural, less idealized proportions, perhaps working from live models.  Figure drawing was seen as the way to learn to draw and academies were set up for the purpose.   Both male and female nudes were depicted.  In the later Baroque period a more playful style emerged.  Rubens set great store in life drawing drawing.


The Three Graces – Rubens (1639)  The painting of the Three Graces provides the opportunity to combine three studies all from different angles.  There is no attempt to hide parts of the body that had previously been (sometimes awkwardly) covered.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, classical subjects remained popular, along with nudes in historical paintings. In the later nineteenth century, academic painters continued with classical themes, but were challenged by the Impressionists. Edgar Degas painted many nudes of women in ordinary circumstances such as bathing.  Eduard Manet shocked the public of his time by painting nude women in contemporary situations.


Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe- Édouard Manet 1862–1863

In the early  twentieth century the subject of the nude was transformed by ideas of modernism-  with experiments with form and the rejection of realism.  In early abstract paintings the body is often portrayed as angular, disjointed or fragmented.

Les_Demoiselles_d'Avignon picasso
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon Picasso 1907
In mid twentieth century,  Abstract Expressionism emerged in America.  Technically, it was an important predecessor to  surrealism, with its emphasis on spontaneous, automatic, or subconscious creation.
Kooning 1953 Woman3

Woman III (1953) by Willem de Kooning, the human body in Abstract Expressionism

Lucien Freud was one of a small group of painters who came to be known as “The School of London”; creating figurative work in the 1970s when it was unfashionable. However, by the end of his life his works had become icons of the Post Modern era, depicting the human body without a trace of idealisation,  He said “I paint people, not because of what they are like, not exactly in spite of what they are like, but how they happen to be.”

Freud -Benefits_Supervisor_Sleeping

Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995)  Lucien Freud