Five Centuries of the Nude in Painting

For centuries, the female body in all its wondrous, nude form has been the artist's muse. Here is a brief history of the changing form of the nude throughout art history.

Francisco de Goya, (1746-1828), La Maja desnuda, between 1795 and 1800, oil on canvas, Prado Museum. Public domain image (detail)
Francisco de Goya, (1746-1828), La Maja desnuda, between 1795 and 1800, oil on canvas, Prado Museum. Public domain image (detail)

The embodiment of beauty, mystery, desire and the forbidden, the nude has always been a strong source of inspiration for artists. However, in the Middle Ages, nudity was associated with sin, so few artists risked depicting it. The Renaissance marked the beginning of a change, because in a surge of freedom, the subject of the nude was again taken up by artists.

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), The Birth of Venus, from 1484 to 1485, tempera on panel, Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Public domain image
Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), The Birth of Venus, from 1484 to 1485, tempera on panel, Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Public domain image

But despite a sudden resurgence, religious modesty was still very present and all pictorial codes are not suddenly upset. From Michelangelo to Da Vinci, the naked body is glorified but always controlled, most often as part of ancient mythology (often depicting Venus). Simonetta Vespucci, the model that inspired Botticelli's (1445-1510) Venus, was regarded as the personification of Venetian beauty. Her nude form was strategically draped and covered. A century later, Titian would also introduce his Venus of Urbino, showing a voluptuous nude form, but still covering the genital area.

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Titian (1488/90-1576), Venus of Urbino, 1534, oil on canvas, Uffizi Gallery. Public domain image
Titian (1488/90-1576), Venus of Urbino, 1534, oil on canvas, Uffizi Gallery. Public domain image

Fast-forward to Francisco de Goya (1746-1828), the Spanish painter known for capturing the female body. In Catholic Spain during an ultra-conservative 19th century, Goya, with no theological or political burdens, depicted women naked, euphoric and free.

Francisco de Goya, (1746-1828), La Maja desnuda, between 1795 and 1800, oil on canvas, Prado Museum. Public domain image
Francisco de Goya, (1746-1828), La Maja desnuda, between 1795 and 1800, oil on canvas, Prado Museum. Public domain image

La Maja desnuda, one of the artist's most famous paintings, would be one of the first Western works of art to reveal a female pubis without using the alibi of mythology.

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In 1807, the King of Spain Ferdinand VII confiscated the Maja from Godoy, the commissioner of the work. In 1814, the Inquisition decided to hide it from the public for “obscenity” and dragged Goya into the heart of a trial. The painter would be acquitted thanks to the influence of Cardinal Don Luis María de Borbón y Vallabriga.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, La Grande Odalisque, 1814, oil on canvas, 91cm x 162cm, Louvre Museum, Paris. Public domain photo
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, La Grande Odalisque, 1814, oil on canvas, 91cm x 162cm, Louvre Museum, Paris. Public domain photo

This freedom to paint the nude, initiated by Goya, would never be broken. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, when he painted La Grande Odalisque in 1814, deliberately elongated the body (the back and the right arm are too long, the angle of the left leg is unnatural) to promote the imagined beauty of the model rather than anatomical accuracy. This unusual decision in painting at the time was proven thanks to the preparatory sketch, which has perfect proportions. However, The Grande Odalisque, presented at the Salon of 1819, was poorly received by critics for these artistic liberties.

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Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), L'Origine du monde, 1866, oil on canvas, 46 × 55 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Public domain image
Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), L'Origine du monde, 1866, oil on canvas, 46 × 55 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Public domain image

In 1866, it was Gustave Courbet's turn to hit the headlines with a female nude that pushed the limits of the presentable. The Origin of the World, represents a woman lying naked on a bed, legs apart, in a frame so tightly composed that the eye of the beholder cannot escape the sight of her exposed genitalia. The model, unidentified, has aroused many theories among historians and contemporaries of the painter. Courbet rejected academic painting and its overly smooth nudes, and prided himself on realism in his painting. Some have said that with L'Origine du monde, he represented the hidden part of Manet'Olympia, another important nude of the mid-19th century which shocked viewers with her bold gaze.

Edouard Manet (1832-1883), Olympia, 1863, oil on canvas, Musee d'Orsay. Public domain image
Edouard Manet (1832-1883), Olympia, 1863, oil on canvas, Musee d'Orsay. Public domain image

At the dawn of the 20th century, Edgar Degas offered the world drawings of nude women in private, often as they were getting ready or in the bath, outlining with a dark and sensual line the contours of their bodies.

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Edgar Degas (1834-1917), After the bath, woman wiping the back of her neck, circa 1899, pastel on cardboard, Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Public domain image
Edgar Degas (1834-1917), After the bath, woman wiping the back of her neck, circa 1899, pastel on cardboard, Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Public domain image

Avant-garde painters like Picasso and Braque also worked on the theme, but from a whole new perspective. Whether in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) or Le Grand Nu (1907-1908), the works impose themselves as visions of the body, well beyond the body itself. While painting has sought anatomical accuracy for centuries, cubism shattered these restrictions and offered representation of the body in new, fragmented parts.

Amedeo Modigliani, 'Nu Couché (sur le côté gauche)', 1917, oil on canvas. Photo © Sotheby's
Amedeo Modigliani, 'Nu Couché (sur le côté gauche)', 1917, oil on canvas. Photo © Sotheby's

Modigliani also was a trailblazer in reinterpreting the classic nude in modern art, painting 35 nudes between 1916-19, such as this work which seems to imitate the pose of Ingres' Odalisque. While today widely praised and admired, the nudes of Modigliani were not so well received when first shown in 1917 and the Paris police even shut the gallery exhibit down.

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At the turn of the 20th century, nudity was used as a tool to delve deep into the psyche. German Expressionist painter Egon Schiele (1890-1918) captured a raw sexuality in his works, which were often inspired by prostitutes with lines and textures that created grotesque, Carnivalesque expressions of his innermost desires and frustrations. Schiele isolated himself from any artistic current to assert his own style through portraits and naked, distorted and gaunt bodies, revealing his desire to create an existential malaise bordering on a certain form of pornography. His tortured nudes would even lead him to prison for insulting good morals and suspicion of seduction and abduction of minors, though he would not be charged. This shows to what extent the expression of the nude in its purest rawness was still subject to negative connotations.

Egon Schiele (1890-1918), Reclining Woman, Naked, Legs Spread Out, 1914, pencil and brush on Japanese paper, Albertina Collection. Public domain image
Egon Schiele (1890-1918), Reclining Woman, Naked, Legs Spread Out, 1914, pencil and brush on Japanese paper, Albertina Collection. Public domain image

Henri Matisse also interpreted the nude in a unique and recognizable style. After the Cubist's "dismemberment of the body," Matisse's works presented the body as no longer a being, but an idea, a concept which the artist materialized through the use of solid color.

After the Second World War, pop art in the 1960s re-appropriated commercial images of nudes, sometimes approaching the limit of pornography, as in certain works by Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004).

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Today, the nude is explored through photography and digital art. Believed to be the essence of a human's most real and bare self, the nude is a representation of the body that, despite changing moral codes and connotations, has endured for centuries.

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