How the Depiction of Nudes has Changed

The depiction of nudes has changed somewhat over the centuries, an important factor seems to be the context in which they were created. They are a visual product of their time.

One of the earliest depictions of a female nude was the Willendorf Venus (30-25,000 B.C.), which has been assumed to be a fertility figure. It soon becomes clear that the male nude, although popular in Ancient Greece and Rome, is not as evident as the female. It will also become evident that the way the nude is depicted is different for both sexes.

In ancient Egypt women were considered to be equal to men and held positions of power, yet in the artwork from that time they were more frequently pictured nude whilst the men were clothed. Females were idealised, shown as youthful and attractive, how they aimed to be in the afterlife. Later on they became linked to their fathers and husbands, surrounded by family to underline the role of motherhood and their procreative purpose in life.

Even in Indian Temple Art of the 1st Century B.C., females were represented by voluptuous nudes as a religious representation of fertility deities. The woman’s role is very clear.

For the Greeks the female form was not as important as the male, who epitomised the best in humanity. Men were muscular and attractive, showing off their strength and youth, setting ideals physically and morally. The male nude was a champion, triumphant and glorious, so admired that he came to represent the Gods of their religious beliefs. Women were baby-makers and homemakers so the same ideals did not apply to them so they did not feature much.

It wasn’t until 4th Century B.C. that the sculptor Praxiteles created the first life-size female statue in the form of Aphrodite (of Knidos), based on mathematical ratios and idealised proportions. The pose suggests she is observed whilst bathing which suggests a possible erotic element.

By the Middle Ages, when Christianity became the dominant religion concerns of morality made the nude fall out of favour, chastity and celibacy became a theme. Nudity was used to show weakness and shame, especially in the case of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, where the woman is allocated the role of the temptress.

It was during the Renaissance that the nude became acceptable again as interest grew in Greek and Roman culture. The nude became symbolic of this antiquity and its rebirth.

Donatello was able to use this Classical view in the biblical figure of David (c.a. 1140, Bargello, Florence), which was the first free-standing nude male for centuries, and also seen in Michelangelo’s statue of David (1501-4, Accademia, Florence). Certainly the male nude was deemed worthy of artistic pursuit. Nudes then started to be added to religious paintings, as in the Sistine Chapel’s frescoes.

In thirteenth century Italy nudity became a respectable art theme but it wasn’t until the fifteenth century that drawing from life became a regular part of art school practice. It was only men that were allowed to be models, artists used them for female representations also by modifying them slightly.

By the sixteenth century Leonard da Vinci became very interested in anatomy. His Vitruvian Man demonstrates his understanding of proportion, combining maths and art. It was suggested that the workings of the human body were representative of the workings of the universe.

Thus the idealised nude became the norm to represent great historical, mythological and religious scenes in order to extol heroism and virtue.

By the sixteenth century Titian used nudes to recall the lost Golden Age and introduced them to landscape settings. His work was also idealised but increasingly sensual.

Females nudes saw a comeback too in the form of Venus, mythology was a way to incorporate the female nude into art. See Titian’s Venus of Urbino (c. 1534, Galleria deglia Uffizi, Florence). Interestingly, the Goddess is shown reclining in a domestic interior, we see no signs or symbols to represent Venus, but mainly this is a sensual rendering, she is  lying, waiting,  appealing to the (male) viewer.

Hereafter there were numerous nudes in various poses but the majority were designed to seduce the male viewer, notably in the work of Lucas Cranach. In the Judgement of Paris,  his three nudes show us different poses, still not naturalistic but reflective of the times.

By the seventeenth century nudes became a little more naturalistic in the work of Gentileschi’s Susanna and the Elder, perhaps it took a woman to observe more closely the realities of a woman’s body.

In the eighteenth century nudes were treated in more frivolous surroundings, and more provocative poses. Manet’s Olympia was intended to shock rather than idealise, the model looks defiantly at the viewer, it is suggested she is a prostitute, perhaps the realism of the situation is the shocking part.

By the nineteenth century Impressionism, often regarded as feminine in style with its diffuse romantic light, Renoir’s sensuous Nude Seated on a Sofa was depicted in a modern setting.

Modigliani’s nudes saw a changing representation where the body became simplified into a set of shapes, lines and colours. Yet they were not realistic with their swan necks and blank expressions, set in angular faces. Their lack of expression means they are still inactive objects.

By 1907 Picasso with his Demoiselles d’Avignon, deliberately subverts the Classical idealisation of the nude with the depiction of four prostitutes in provocative poses, wearing masks and allusion so classical drapes. He also starts to study form in his Cubist works, representing reality in a new and different manner.

Egon Schiele’s figurative and distortive style fully embraced nudes, male and female, his sexual works  edged towards pornography with his graphic depictions of nudes and self-portraits. His Kneeling Nude With Raised Hands is considered one of the most important nudes of the century. His works also contained a psychological element, the viewer is almost challenged to really look at the subject and look beyond the superficial.

Schiele was hugely influenced by Klimt, who was one of the few artists to depict women at different stages, not just the young and beautiful, but showed pregnancy, aging and loss of beauty to express the normal, more realistic cycle of life. Klimt’s works were considered more peaceful than Schiele’s, see The Three Ages of Women.

The twenty-first century saw artists looking for different ways to represent the nude. Lucien Freud with his complete lack of idealisation, his almost stark, realistic style suggesting contemplation and vulnerability in his subjects. See his Benefits Supervisor Sleeping.

Jenny Saville, a contemporary artist taking on a new realism with her figurative representations of the female body. Her works are large scale and seem to specialise in texture. In Branded, we see an obese women holding her skin, showing it off. Saville has painted her own face onto the body, its features exaggerated. See also Plan, the body has pre-surgery lines drawn all over it as if seen before plastic surgery.  The very physicality of her work suggests the difference between how we look and what we really think about our bodies.

There are so many great paintings of nudes it is hard to include them all. The way the female nude has been depicted has changed more than that of the male, from representing fertility and motherhood, to being synonymous with sin, guilt and shame, and later sexuality. Nearly all of the women were depicted for men to look at them, to be available to men. The male were simply lauded for physical strength and moral rectitude.

It’s funny to think that initially women were hidden away, behind clothing and then always with their families or husbands, attached to the family in a possessive way, as in the patriarchal family.

Yet women were also seen as caretakers and mothers, before they seem to have landed on the most popular one that is hardest to shake, that of the sexual object, the object of desire whilst men were warriors and leaders, women were objectified and sexualised.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, going back in history women did not have the same rights as men, they couldn’t even study art in the same way and not seriously, that was not appropriate. Women had a lot of different barriers to climb over.

It surprising how many female bodies are displayed in galleries but not that many female artists are represented, even now. Museums and galleries are still set up to be looked upon by the male eye, suggesting that creating art has been, and remains a mostly male pursuit.



Berger, John, London, BBC and Penguin Books, Ways of Seeing




2 thoughts on “How the Depiction of Nudes has Changed

  1. αNaturist says:

    “It soon becomes clear that the male nude, although popular in Ancient Greece and Rome, is not as evident as the female. ” This is actually a strange statement, because Ancient Greece and Rome represent about 40% of European art history, and then (obviously through their influence) during Renaissance, the male figure was prevalent as well. So your focus on the 16-19th century seems biased.


    1. Louise says:

      HI thanks for your observation. I confess I’m not as knowledgable about that era so there probably is a bias based on research available to me. Do you have a source for that stat? would be interested to read more on this, Time constraints only allowed me a very general look at this topic but it interest me so would like to learn more and correct my ignorance. thanks again


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