Female Nudes

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus via Wikipedia

Feature image: Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus via Wikipedia

First Female Nudes by a Female Artist

During the Renaissance, there was a surge of nude paintings completed from a secular perspective. In previous decades, the only nudity deemed socially acceptable in post-Medieval Europe was justified by its supposed purpose as religious iconography. Much of this art was commissioned by the Catholic Church itself; examples of this include nude depictions of Adam and Eve and the bare breast of Madonna. The shift to secular nudes amongst European artists was largely influenced by the rise of ancient Greek ideology—specifically humanism —which allowed artists to explore sexuality under the guise of mythology and history. Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (1485) is considered the first secular nude of this time. Many artists followed in Botticelli’s footsteps; Giorgione created the first reclining nude, Sleeping Venus, in 1510. The reclining nude became a widely popular genre of painting during this time and is a pose that has had a lasting effect on the world of art. The reclining nude has also played a pivotal role in reinforcing the gendered concept of the sedentary, passive woman and the agentic, active man.

Giorgione, Sleeping Venus, 1510
Giorgione, Sleeping Venus, 1510 via Singulart

Male artists have a long and extensive history of painting female nudes. The ubiquity of the nude woman as the subject of the male gaze has invoked tireless discourse surrounding sexual empowerment, consent, and objectification. However, the role of female artists in depictions of the human figure is discussed with less frequency. For much of history, women were barred from being able to complete art school. In pre-modern Europe, women could not receive instruction on figure drawing, as it was felt to be improper for women to view nude bodies. Despite restrictions to formal training, women refused to be excluded and thus set out to teach themselves. The first female nude paintings attributed to a female artist from this era were completed by Lavinia Fontana in 1595 and 1613. Fontana’s early female nudes understandably reinforced the norms of sexual passivity attributed to women, but throughout her career, she grew bolder, challenging some of these deeply ingrained stereotypes.

A Note On Male Nudes vs Female Nudes

Men, of course, have long been depicted nude as well. However, mirroring patriarchal gender norms, their depictions stand in stark relief from those of female subjects. In ancient Greece, male nudes were often categorized as “heroic nudes,” which depict the subject toiling nobly on the battlefield, the high seas, or in the athletic arena. These idealized gender descriptions of men have clearly held fast for hundreds of years. Nude depictions of Hercules or Achilles focus on the power and strength of these men; their sexual appeal plays a subordinate role to this. The body language of these men also enforces their nudity as powerful, not sexual. Nude men were often depicted with one foot forward, a simple pose that signifies action in art. They were also posed with arms akimbo, often wielding a weapon. These men move about, unashamed (in fact, barely aware) of their nakedness. 

Marco Prins, Hercules, c. 90 CE
Marco Prins, Hercules, c. 90 CE via Bluffton
Michaelangelo, David
Michaelangelo, David via Wikimedia

On the other hand, female nudes are left merely with the sexual appeal of their bodies. Nude women lounge; they are coy, passive, and acutely aware of their nude state. These women often attempt to cover themselves by placing a hand lightly over their genitalia or draping an arm across the chest. This imagery clearly cements the idea of men as viewers and women as being viewed. Women's sexuality, that of passivity and submission, thus becomes the central theme of these works. These sentiments are further evidenced in the fact that the women who were most often depicted nude during this time were Danae and Venus. Venus, as the goddess of beauty, and Danae, as a concubine of Zeus, symbolize the enshrining of women’s idealized role as muse, subject to the whims of superior men. Though female nudity has been successfully reclaimed in numerous instances as an act of empowerment and self-agency, it is clear that in Renaissance Europe, secular female nakedness within the male-dominated art world served to objectify and subjugate. 

Antonio da Correggio, Danae (1531)

Correggio, Danae
Correggio, Danae, 1531 via Fine Art America

Danae, according to the Ancient Greeks, was locked away in a tower after her father heard a prophecy that predicted his death at the hands of Danae’s future son. Zeus, who, despite this seclusion, demanded to seduce Danae, visited her by taking the form of a golden rain shower. This visitation resulted in Danae’s impregnation; she went on to give birth to Perseus (a famous Greek hero who, among other accomplishments, fulfilled the prophecy that dispatched his own grandfather). Coreggio depicts Danae sitting, slightly reclined, holding a white sheet across her pubic area that catches the gold as it rains down. Two cupids, meanwhile, test the gold for its purity. Eros, the god of sex, accompanies Danae on the bed to assist her in catching the golden droplets. 

Titian, Venus of Urbino (1538)

Titan, Venus de Urbino
Titan, Venus de Urbino, 1538 via Wikimedia

In this work, Titian imagines Venus as a contemporary woman, unabashedly displaying her nudity. In the background, two maids search for the woman’s clothes, but in the meantime, the woman is left to peer out at the viewer in a rather flirtatious manner. She attempts to conceal her pubic area with her hand and sits passively, allowing the viewer to behold her in her nude state. While the majority of female nudes from this era depict the nude woman shyly looking away, here, the woman stares boldly out at the viewer in a salacious manner. This seemingly small detail caused quite a wave of shock to Renaissance viewers of the work, who felt the overt sexual tones were too risque and indecent. 

Lavinia Fontana, Minerva Dressing (1613)

Fontana, Minerva Dressing, 1613 via Wikipedia
Fontana, Minerva Dressing, 1613 via Wikipedia

Minerva (Athena in the Greek tradition), the goddess of war and wisdom, was often depicted in full armor. Here, however, Fontana chose to depict Minerva nude. She can be seen standing with her back to the viewer, head turned to gaze out over her shoulder. Fontana creates the impression that the viewer has interrupted the goddess, who has removed her battle gear upon returning from a hunt and is reaching for a lovely dress. The olive branches and owl in the background of the image are Minerva’s signature symbols of wisdom, prudence, and peace. Cupid, often used as a sign of eroticism, is also present in the work, but instead of being engaged with Minvera, he seems completely aware of her nudity. Instead, Cupid is seen admiring the plums of Minerva's helmet. The two figures are removed from a realm of eroticism and, instead, enter a form of platonic love. This work rejects the sexualization of the female nude, instead using Minerva's nudity to teach a moral lesson that reason and prudence triumph over passion. 

Fontana’s work stands in stark contrast to the female nudes men were creating at the time. Being a woman herself, Fontana was able to offer a different perspective on the meaning of a naked woman, a perspective that proved to be widely appreciated by the aristocratic women of Italy who specifically sought out Fontana’s masterful approach. The history of female nudity in art is extensive; it has been rightfully criticized for centuries by individuals and feminist collectives (the Guerilla Girls, for example). Engaging in frank conversations about past conceptualizations of unequal gender norms can help mold our future into a more female-conscious environment that centers and celebrates women for more than just their sexual appeal. 

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