by Richard Brafford

The female nude in art is one of the many artistic innovations of the 15th-century Renaissance in Western Europe. Commonly placed in a composition that accentuates the glow of their skin, they are seen close up and usually straight on, their stylized bodies span the entire width of the canvas, and their hands and feet normally remain inside the picture's frame. Sometimes asleep, they most often face the viewer.

This innovation, pioneered by the Venetian painter Giorgione, led directly to the work of artists such as Titian, Rubens, Goya, Manet and many others, until the genre evolved far from its original interpretation.

The first female reclining nude in European painting is Giorgione's The Sleeping Venus, painted in 1510. It pictures a reclining nude and is one of the first modern works of art in which the female figure is the principal and only subject of the picture.

Giorgione's Sleeping Venus is to the development of the painted nude as Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa (1505) is to the development of the painted portrait. It inaugurated the nude in a landscape setting as one of the great themes of European art. Giorgione's contouring line and modeling of paint suggests true feeling and form. Not painted for sexual desire or erotic stimulation, she is depicted as a goddess sleeping and unaware you are peeping in on her. Giorgione has made us the spectators, voyeurs into her private world. He has taken this subject seriously and for the first time the female nude is painted poetry with a new visual language.

The scenery of Giorgione's Sleeping Venus is characterized by contrasts: she is set underneath a protective, lush hill on the left, an approaching storm in the far center and a multilevel villa on the right. Yet the effect is completely unified.

The very presence of the beautiful Venus is one of the mysteries of European painting. It is the outstanding masterpiece of the Venetian Renaissance, the summit of Giorgione's creative career. However, he died before he could complete it, therefore, the painting may have been completed by his pupil, Titian.

By studying the early works of Titian, it is evident he was under the spell of Giorgione, with whom he had a close relationship. In 1506-08 Titian assisted Giorgione with fresco decoration in Venice, then after Giorgione's early death in 1510, it fell to Titian to complete a number of his unfinished paintings. The authorship of some of Giorgione's famous works is still disputed: the two styles are somewhat a fusion of Titian's worldliness with Giorgione's painted poetry.

Countless variations of the Sleeping Venus have followed through the centuries. Cranach's River Nymph at the Fountain (1518) shows how even far lesser artists took up the motif, which had now become a favorite of German aristocrats.

During the 1530s, as Titian's fame was spreading throughout Europe, he first met the emperor Charles V of Italy and painted his portrait. Charles was so pleased with it that he appointed Titian court painter and elevated him to the rank of Count Palatine and Knight of the Golden Spur, an unprecedented honor for a painter. In 1538 Titian painted the celebrated Venus of Urbino for Prince Charles of Urbino.

Titian's Venus is a complete contrast of Giorgione's subtle poetry and idyllic remoteness. This Venus is not an unattainable goddess, unaware of our presence. Titian paints his Venus awake and looking at the viewer with a sensual allure in her eyes. She is depicted in a room within an opulent palace. In the background her servants are assembling her clothing to dress her. Lying next to her is her pet dog, a symbol of fidelity. Is she a goddess? A princess? The mistress of Charles? Scholars are still contemplating Titian's intention.

The reclining nude continued to evolve with the great Flemish painter Rubens. In 1630 he depicts a scene inspired by Ariosto's poem Orlando Furioso, where a voluptuous, "Rubenesque" sleeping Angelica is visited by a hermit whose internal struggle is symbolized by the leering imp or demon behind her.

In Venus at Her Mirror (1644) Velasquez shows us a Venus with her back to us, admiring herself in the mirror, and we see how Venus has now become absorbed in her own vanity.

Boucher's typical paintings turned mythological subject matter into wittily happy scenes, such as his charming painted female commissioned by King Louis XV of France in 1750 of his mistress Louisa O'Murphy. The reclining nude is no longer a goddess of love; she is a woman you make love to.

Goya's Naked Maja (painted around 1800) ushered in a period where the reclining nude was not a goddess, princess, mistress or pampered woman. The Maja is a woman of questionable identity. Is she someone's wife or lover, a working model merely posing for money, or something else? The painting was seized in 1808 by order of King Ferdinand VI of Spain , and in 1813, the Inquisition confiscated the painting as an "obscene work." Nonetheless, Goya's interpretation of the nude was later followed by other painters, especially in France.

Ingres makes a strong concession to the contemporary romantic taste for the exotic. There is no question regarding the identity of his Odalisque; as the name implies, an inhabitant of a Turkish harem. Yet her gaze is riveting; despite her position in life, she almost mocks the viewer, making us feel vaguely uneasy. Ingres paints her in his own sculpturesque style, but a real woman nonetheless.

By 1863, Manet's Olympia is no nymph or mythological being; she is a modern Parisian woman. Manet's intent was to continue with the tradition started by Giorgione by bringing the idea 180 degrees opposite from a sleeping Venus to a common Parisian whore receiving flowers, probably from another woman's husband. The setting is a typical Parisian apartment and next to her is a cat, a symbol of infidelity. Olympia looks at the spectator as if to say "Here I am and what are you going to do about it?"

With Blue Nude (1928) Matisse was inspired by his travels to, Algiers, Casablanca and Africa. He paints his odalisque with unashamed voyeurism in the Fauvist style, which is freer and more abstract, with an expressive pallet of vibrant, unnatural colors.

The American artist John Singer Sargent is best known for his portraits, but during his sojourns in Venice, Spain, Morocco and elsewhere in North Africa, and in the Middle East, he mastered drawing just about any subject including the female and male nude. Traditionally, male nudes are standing and not shown in what could be seen as a submissive pose unless they are dead or defeated. Here, Sargent turns the tables by putting a man in a scenario usually reserved for women.

The Polish artist Tamara Lempicka is best known for her Art Deco-styled figures featuring sexy, bedroom-eyed women rendered in haunting poses. Perhaps it was her own dramatic life mirrored in her art.

Now we view a woman's interpretation of the female body. This figure is not in repose; she seems tense, perhaps even distressed. She looks like an athlete, with bold arms and strong legs. Lempicka paints her in a late Cubist style with muted colors, which was popular at the time. Is she a mythological goddess? Is she aware that we are looking upon her? Is this figure as much a mystery as Giorgione's Sleeping Venus, painted almost 500 years ago?

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