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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 .
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.
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?"
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.
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.
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.
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?