Conventions of Female Nudity in Art History

( This paper was written for my Renaissance to Modern art history class at Dawson College as a research paper, I slightly edited it to be shorter to make it less tedious to read. )

Nude and Naked are two very different things; being in the Nude simply means to be unclothed, while being Naked is to be vulnerable.  From the sacred, innocent beauty of the Venus figure, to the working class Odalisque; woman have been portrayed in many lights from Renaissance to Mannerist times.  Typically, the known artists were (rich, white,straight) men who painted for other (rich, white,straight) men, which started a long string of (white) nude female paintings from the perspective of the male-gaze.  This is a walk-through of the effect and products of the (rich, white, straight) male-gaze.   Before the Renaissance, the Church was the main patron of art.  Preserving modesty and rejection of committing sin led the church to distance itself from nude imagery except for divine depictions and early statues of divine beauty. The Renaissance brings new perceptions of the nude, because artist’s like Michelangelo and Da Vinci sparked a curiosity for the human figure and its functions. Beauty through the form of the human body had become rediscovered and un-shamed in the Renaissance.

The first most notable shift from the perception of the female form in painting was Botticelli’s Birth of Venus[1] (see figure 1). This marks the transition period from the Middle Ages in to the Renaissance. From the time of covered Madonna’s in the form of Mother Mary’s, to this new interpretation of nude.  She is of godly origin, the winds blow her ashore as she almost floats in traditional contrapposto.   It is generally believed to be a wedding painting because of the subjects involved.  Artists in the Renaissance would become fascinated with human bodies and dissect to further understand their mechanisms. Artist’s had a good understanding of the human body.  They also knew how to perfect ratios for it’s model.  Purposely, her torso appears to be elongated along with her neck, and her face youthful and divine.  She is not property of marriage, but is filtered through the male-gaze by exaggerated aspects of ultimate, divine beauty.

Now later Venus’ are commissioned by wealthy noblemen. Another wedding painting is later done by Titain, called the Venus of Urbino[2] (see figure 2).  This Venus makes direct eye contact.  She reclines seductively while her hand covering her modesty draws more attention than not. She is depicted as more of a possession than the previous Venus, a possession of marriage.  Flowers are in her hand that cover herself, and a dog stays loyally at her side.  Servants behind her pack or unpack her bag.  This painting is meant for her male lover to look at. The Duke to be of Urbino wrote his agent about a painting by Titian he wanted, referring to her as “la donna nuda”.  It hit hard, Mark Twain in Tramp Abroad, wrote his opinions about it vividly;

“foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses… There are pictures of nude women which suggest no impure thought — I am well aware of that. I am not railing at such. What I am trying to emphasize is the fact that Titian’s Venus is very far from being one of that sort”

The male-gaze wasn’t taken lightly by all, yet some fantasized and glorified it.  Such as a young Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres who painted a western fantasy called La Granda Odalsiqu.[3] (Figure 3). Having never been in a harem in Europe, as this setting takes place, Ingres completely based his setting off westernized fantasies of the foreign and unfamiliar.  It was common to don the nude model a Venus to protect identity, yet he boldly called her an Odalisque, in other words she was a concubine living in a harem that existed only for a male’s sexual pleasure. She is elongated for the male viewer’s pleasure, nearly coming out of her frame. She is making direct eye-contact, yet turns away as if to tease.  An opium pipe by her feet and the luxurious drapery and clothe she lies on exaggerates the dream like fantasy of the rich, white, male viewer.

Francisco Goya takes it a step further by blatantly titling his painting La Maja Desnuda[4]( Figure 4).  He depicts an idealized female body perfectly on display for the male gaze.  She lies on her side with her arms behind her head to display her pale, beautiful body.  She makes direct eye contact as a baroque style light illuminates her across the painting. There is nothing else in the painting to distract the male viewer, it was so provocative that the Spanish prime minister locked it in a private room.  This was the first woman who was not a concubine to be depicted with pubic hair, completely natural.  He made an exact copy, except she is clothed, and they now hang beside each other.

It wasn’t always the nudity that people were offended by, it was more the content and how it was presented. Based off of Titian’s Venus of Urbino,  is Édouard Manet’s Olympia[5] (figure 5),  an upper-class working prostitute. This painting was unlike previous paintings, Olympia challenged the male-gaze by staring directly at the (male) viewer with her hand starkly withdrawing access from greedy eyes.  Manet worked closely with the two models over his career and deliberately incorporated these controversial subjects with a new light. Olympia was a common name for prostitutes in the 1860’s, and she is a well off worker. With jewelry and an enticing ribbon choker, she lays on sensual silk sheets as her maid brings her flowers from a possible client. Manet didn’t lie and create an idealized Venus, he created the typical working class woman of the time. Her stark white body and unworked body draw us to what she covers, as a male viewer we are in her room and she has the power to restrict or allow what she wants seeing as its how she makes a well-off living.

The definition of the male gaze as Wikipedia would have it is “the act of depicting the world and women in the visual arts and in literature from a masculine and heterosexual point of view, which present women as objects of male pleasure”[6].  The most interesting is the majority of critic’s reactions of the time from seeing a nude female, every time there was mentions of immorality and disgust.  The nude female figure has evolved and progressed through-out history.  She has taken many names and portrayed many lives, or maybe just idealized a few.  She is for herself, yet also for the male’s she is created by.  The subject of the beauty of the human body has been represented for years before, and will be forever.  Every painter carefully chose what to include or exclude in his composition, alternating the meaning and perceptions that paint can bring to life.  A popular and provocative subject, the female body has impacted art from the Renaissance up to the Impressionist era and has reigned before and after these times, although these are arguably the most controversial and important years in the development and perceptions aroung the nude female figure in art.


Botticelli’s Birth of Venus Figure 1


Titain’s Venus of Urbino. Figure 2


Ingres’s La Grande Odalisque figure 3


Goya’s La Maja Desnuda  Figure 4


Manet’s Olympia, Figure 5 .






[6] https:/ /

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