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The Nude

The art of laying bare

The nude
The nude is the genre focused on the aesthetic aspect of the naked human body. The term traces its origin to the Latin nudus (“naked, bare”) and is cognate with the French nudité (“nudity”). Read more
is the genre focused on the aesthetic aspect of the naked human body. The term traces its origin to the Latin nudus ("naked, bare") and is cognate with the French nudité ("nudity").
The depictions of nudity belonging to the earliest found in Europe are Ancient Greek sculptures of the 6th and 5th centuries BC that once were placed in shrines as sepulchral stones to the people buried there. A male statue is termed kouros, a female one kore. The mild climate and the traditions of Greek athletic events, where the participants competed naked, made nudity perfectly natural for sculptural portrayals of victors and heroes. Gods and goddesses, too, were shown nude, while clothing was reserved for the statues of ordinary mortals.

In the 4th century BC, the celebrated Greek sculptor Praxiteles created a statue of Aphrodite called the Knidian, with proportions based on mathematical ratios, which established a new standard for a female nude.
With the rise of Christianity, depiction of human nudity started symbolising sin and lewdness, not only in Western Europe, but also in Byzantine art. The exceptions were only made for Adam and Eve, and for Last Judgment scenes. In the late medieval period, nude figures could be found in miniature illustrations on the pages of illuminated manuscripts, and as pictures representing the Signs of the Zodiac. Christ’s naked body was supposed to display his haggard look and his wounds, and by no means his sexual identity. However, the infant Jesus was often portrayed with his penis exposed in the scenes of the Circumcision, for obvious theological reasons of how to interpret Biblical subjects.

Lucas Cranach the Elder. The Infant Christ
The Infant Christ
XVI century, 36×23 cm
In Japanese art, the nude is represented by sexually explicit scenes. These erotic pictures known as shunga are as sensual as they are aesthetic. A lot of famous Japanese artists made them. Shunga handscrolls not only served as sexual guidance for newly married couples, but were also considered protective against bad luck, that is why they could cost a fortune.
The nude returned to European art in the Renaissance
The Renaissance is the period that began around the 14th century and ended at the late 16th century, traditionally associated primarily with the Italian region. The ideas and images of the Renaissance largely determined the aesthetic ideals of modern man, his sense of harmony, measure and beauty. Read more
. The work of art that should be mentioned in this respect is the statue of the Biblical hero David, a symbol for the Republic of Florence, made by the celebrated sculptor Donatello. Donatello’s David shows a hero resting from his combat. It was the first freestanding sculpture of a nude made since antiquity.

The tradition was picked up by Michelangelo, who included nude subjects in the murals of the Sistine Chapel and made the most renowned nude male sculpture — his own version of David. Michelangelo’s five-metre-high David shows the ancient hero who, unlike Donatello’s, is but just going to confront Goliath.
Michelangelo Buonarroti. David
  • Donatello. “David.” C. 1440
  • Michaelangelo.. “David.” 1501—1504
The nude subjects were further employed by Sandro Botticelli, who created the painting The Birth of Venus for the Medici family. The pose of the figure was inspired by the 1st-century-BC marble copy of a bronze statue of Venus, then belonging to the Medici.
Sandro Botticelli. Birth Of Venus
Birth Of Venus
1486, 172.5×278.5 cm
The Sleeping Venus by Giorgione started a long line of classical depictions of a reclining female nude in a landscape: Titian's Venus of Urbino, Velázquez's Venus at her Mirror, Goya's Nude Maja, and a great many others, including Manet's Olympia. Although quite classical in their proportions, all these paintings were intended to highlight the sexuality of the female body.
Along with the Christ child, it became common to portray Eros, the god of love and desire, not as a good-looking adult, but as a little naked cherub — Amor, or Cupid.

Raphael is usually credited as the first artist who used naked female models when working on his paintings. Previously, models for female figures had been young men and boys, with breasts added in the drawings. It is commonly believed that no other but Raphael dropped this practice and asked women to sit for him instead.
Actually, Michelangelo had made his nude female figure studies some time earlier. His charcoal and pencil sketches of nude models were preparatory materials for his paintings where the subjects were shown clothed.
In the Renaissance
The Renaissance is the period that began around the 14th century and ended at the late 16th century, traditionally associated primarily with the Italian region. The ideas and images of the Renaissance largely determined the aesthetic ideals of modern man, his sense of harmony, measure and beauty. Read more
period, the nude figure drawing of a live model became a common part of artistic training, and still remains so. Studies of the live human body resulted in its more naturalistic depictions, and allowed breaking with the canons of classical antiquity. Rubens, who enjoyed painting women of generous figure, gave his name to the adjective Rubenesque. The Rubenesque women and Rubenesque female forms give us an idea of how feminine beauty was understood in the Baroque era. The great Flemish artist’s works made it possible to follow how the techniques of the nude developed in mid-17th-century painting.
Peter Paul Rubens. Three Graces
Three Graces
1634, 221×181 cm
In the Rococo period, nude pictures became more erotic and playful. In later times, the nude became firmly established in mythological and historical painting by academic artists. Female nudity was considered acceptable, whereas naked male bodies provoked the public’s violent protests as an offence against morality.
Francisco Goya. Nude Maja
Nude Maja
XIX century, 98×191 cm
Legend has it that The Clothed Maja was painted later than the nude variant, and equipped with a special mechanism, for the express purpose of covering the other picture.
Francisco Goya. The clothed maja
The clothed maja
XIX century, 97×190 cm
The Impressionists' contribution to the further development of the nude genre was a shock to the public. Instead of historical themes, they focused on everyday subjects. The naked women they portrayed were quite ordinary, and often of loose morals. Thus, Manet's presentation of a well-known demi-mondaine lying in the classical posture of Venus was something challenging for the public of his days. Courbet was blamed for his Woman with a Parrot — his model, too, was a prostitute. As to his Origin of the World, it is a story, nay a scandal in its own right, which still keeps springing surprises.
Edouard Manet. Olympia
1863, 130.5×190 cm
The genre, responsive to every new trend in world art, kept transforming. Modernism, a successor to Impressionism, went even further away from the sleek gods and goddesses. So are Egon Schiele's works — their harsh eroticism is sometimes censored even now.
Picasso and Matisse were no strangers to the nude either. They depicted nude women in the framework of Cubist and Expressionist concepts.
Pablo Picasso. Standing Nude and seated musketeer
Tamara Lempicka. Rhythm
1924, 160×144 cm
At the turn of the 20th century, Modernism dictated the new principles that revived the classical canons of harmony. The style found its adherents in the Mir Iskusstva ("World-of-Art") and other Russian artists close to their circle. However, all of them had their own preferences that could vary from Baroque and Rococo to strict Greek proportions. Kustodiev, for instance, was called the Russian Rubens, whereas Serebriakova's nude figures were harmoniously proportioned.
The Russian avant-garde shook the standards of the nude — just look at the gallery of Mikhail Larionov’s Venuses!
In the USSR, artists were very careful about this genre and its subjects, and avoided parading their own nudes. One of the first nude pictures displayed to the public was Spring by Arkady Plastov. At the All-Union Art Exhibition in 1954, this canvas, for the first time after so many years, showed a naked female figure to the Soviet audience, which stirred up a lot of controversy.
However, Aleksandr Deyneka's nudes were quite well-known.
The nude, as a genre, should be distinguished from explicitly erotic pictures of nudity. In older times, a public demonstration of a woman’s ankle, whether bare or even with a stocking on, could create a serious scandal. However, in the 20th century, fashion, little by little, uncovered the human body. The vogue for a beautiful suntan and the invention of bikini had their effect: a naked body will not make much impression any longer. Today’s artists depicting nudity are more concerned about the composition and the message, and the erotic component is something of minor importance.
Lucien Freud. Girl with a white dog
Girl with a white dog
1952, 76.2×101.6 cm
Famous artists who worked in the nude genre: Michelangelo Buonarroti, Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, Raphael, Rubens, Sandro Botticelli, François Boucher, Gustave Moreau, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Gustave Courbet, Egon Schiele, Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, Alice Neel, Sylvia Sleigh, Lucian Freud, Cecile Brown.
Classical nude paintings: Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus; Titian, Venus of Urbino; Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Nymph of the Spring; Rembrandt, Bathsheba with King David’s Letter; Peter Paul Rubens, The Three Graces; Francisco Goya, The Nude Maja; Édouard Manet, Olympia; Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, The Source; Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Nude; Boris Kustodiev, Russian Venus; Lucian Freud, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping; Arkady Plastov, Spring.
Main illustration: Diego Velázquez, “Venus in front of the Mirror.” 1651
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