a brief history of nudes.
When did art history’s favorite subject become so risqué?
You don’t have to have a degree in art history to recognize that a nude is not a nude is not a nude. That is to say: You wouldn’t look at Marcel Duchamp’s 1921 painting “Nude Descending a Staircase” and suddenly find yourself in the mood. A naked body is not an inherently sexual thing, of course, and in the case of art, that’s been clear for centuries. (And now, in our time of self-isolation even the New York Times has noted that nude selfies have started to err on the side of artwork).
From the Venus of Willendorf to Praxiteles’s sculpture of Aphrodite, the earliest nudes were images of beauty, but they weren’t marred by scandal: When figures in the flesh came from religion or mythology, they were easily shielded from unnecessary sexualization. It’s when artists started to depict their lovers (both openly and in secret) that things started to get a bit more complicated. Shady Ladies Tours exists for a reason: Art museums are full of images of courtesans and mistresses that, to the modern viewer, might not seem so scandalous, but to their contemporaries, were reason to go up in arms.
Long before our modern culture of “risqué” photos arose, or even earlier 20th-century boudoir photos came about, there have been a few moments when the intentions behind a painting have been a bit cheeky (both literally and figuratively). Consider getting prints of these images if you want to give your gallery wall a boost.
La Maja Desnuda (1797–1800) by Francisco Goya Created for a private collection, Francisco Goya’s famed portrait of a woman lounging languidly in the nude happens to be one of the earliest Western painting that portrays a woman with pubic hair—without any negative connotations. The work is particularly striking because of the model’s unashamed eye contact with the viewer—a major power move. Goya made an identical painting, this time with the model clothed. But you can guess which version made more of an impact.
The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (1814) by Hokusai You might know him for his famed painting, “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” (and the emoji it inspired) but this Japanese artist didn’t just stick to landscapes. But admittedly, this bawdy image does share an aquatic theme. Perhaps one of the best-known examples of shuguna erotica, it inspired countless artists later (including Picasso) and a print of it stood out as a prop in Mad Men.
The Origin of the World (1866) by Gustave Corbet Sure, its title is pretty matter-of-fact, but that didn’t stop Corbet’s cropped-in painting of a woman’s pelvis (legs spread, pubic hair and all) from shocking viewers. Originally commissioned by a Turkish-Egyptian diplomat who owned a larger collection of art celebrating the female body, the painting was lost for several decades (yet still maintained its infamy without being seen) until it was donated to the Musée de Orsay by psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan in 1995.
Seated Male Nude Self Portrait (1910) by Egon Schiele To put it rather bluntly, Egon Schiele’s nude self-portraits could be considered the predecessor of a racy selfie. The intense lines and graphic quality of his work double down on its wholly intentional erotic quality.
Imperial Nude (1977) by Sylvia Sleigh Painter Sylvia Sleigh saw the long history of female nudes painted by white male artists and raised her audience an alternative: a whole catalog of sexualized works, largely of her muse Paul Rosano. In 1975, a New York State Supreme Court judge argued that some images at Bronx Museum of the Arts be removed because of profanity (including one by Sleigh)—but that kind of censorship didn’t deter her from continuing to create her nudes.