Research Point – The Female Nude

This was a very interesting subject, I’m afraid to say that I hadn’t really considered before. I had looked upon the nude in art from a very simple and personal viewpoint. This exercise has made me question my own and others interpretation of the nude.

My initial impressions on reading the brief were  that the context of the time period was the most important thing when thinking of the female nude in art. If we look back to the classical period, the male nude was more common that the female. I wondered if this was because views on homosexuality were much more liberal in this era and it was almost commonplace. Again in the Renaissance, male nudes were more common for artists such as Michelangelo and da Vinci. As we move through time, the female nude becomes much more prevalent and this coincides perhaps with decreasing acceptance of homosexuality (the majority of artists were male) in western society and therefore regardless of the artists sexual preferences and his reasons for painting either male or female, he may have been predisposed to only paint female nudes in order to maintain his respect in the community.

Aside from this angle, classical patriarchal society revered power and athleticism which could be seen in the male ideal while women were seen as lowly beings so would never be admired. The male nudes of classical time and the Renaissance were portrayed in a very different way from the female nudes in art history. These male figures were powerful, ideal examples of health and manhood. There is little or no vulnerability shown in these classical depictions, the figures are strong and shown in dynamic and powerful poses often with the narrative of success and control.

We also have to consider the context of the inherent gender differences between the sexes. Woman were normally painted as vulnerable or coquettish, with definite stereotypes of sexuality or motherhood. But this is how women have been seen in society until late into the 20th century and perhaps still continues.

Clarks views on the nude are similarly a product of his time and experiences. He introduces the nude as a subject in art and says:

“No nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator, some vestige of erotic feeling, even although it may only be the faintest shadow. The desire to be united with another human body is so fundamental a part of our nature, that our judgement of what is known as “pure form” is inevitably influenced by it.”(1)

I have a lot of difficulty with this comment. He infers that one can’t look upon a nude painting or sculpture without being aroused. A woman can’t look at a female nude and a man of a male nude without this response regardless of their sexual preferences. He says this with such certainty and then negates all challenges by suggesting that the arousal would be a “faintest shadow” and thus perhaps not detectable by the person who of course is in denial about their own sexual preferences. It reminds me of a Freud-like patriarchal view of sexual psychology.

If we examine the works of art mentioned in the brief, I think there is no doubt that the female nude has featured in a sexual way in Western art over hundreds of years. The female figure is there for the pleasure of the man who has painted it or will look upon it in the future. I don’t really think that the agenda is particularly hidden in these works either. The female figure is presented to the viewer for their delectation. The artists were male and the paintings were intended for a male buyer. Perhaps a man would buy a paintings for his wife but ultimately it was his money and his choice. Even those wealthy woman is history were subject to the same patriarchal society. I would also say that women are psychologically very different sexually and are not driven by the same visual cues as men so the depiction of men in a sexual way is unlikely to ever happen to the same degree as the demand would not be there.

Perhaps even now, as a female, my environment has moulded my views so that I am so brainwashed by the constant immersion in gender stereotypes that I do not notice the inequality any more. I have looked upon Ingres Grande Odalisque or Degas bathing women in the past and appreciated the way they have been painted, the play of light across the flesh, admired the sinuous curves but never considered that I am taking the place of a man, ogling a naked woman who in some cases is unaware she is being watched. If these were photos, I would feel much more uncomfortable. The fact that the figure has been transferred onto the canvas with brushes and paint and the process takes longer somehow removes the sinister nature of the scene and makes it a fiction.


Titian – Venus of Urbino, 1538


Velaquez – Venus at Her Mirror (The Rokeby Venus), 1651


Ingres – La Grande Odalisque

paul-gauguin-two-tahitian-women, 1899

Gauguin – Two Tahitian Women, 1899

The above examples are overtly sexual or at least sensual. There are multitudes of other examples in a similar vein. These figures are seen to be complicit in the scene because they look out at the viewer, but often artists such as Degas and Rembrandt preferred a more voyeuristic approach. Their nudes are seemingly unaware of the viewer and this give the women and more exposed and vulnerable impact.

rembrandt bathing-riversmall

Rembrandt – A Woman Bathing in a Stream, 1654


Degas – After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself, 1895

Like Titian’s Venus of Urbino (which was a private commission), Manet’s nudes were seen as controversial and shocking (Olympia’s direct gaze or contrast of the two nudes with the fully clothed men in Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe) but I think he highlighted the attitude to the female nude in many traditional paintings. It is acceptable for the nude to be in the situation as long as she is unwilling but only prostitutes or unchaste women are shown as complicit or in control of her own nudity by looking out at the viewer.

Susanna and the Elders

Artemisia Gentileschi is an uncommon occurrence of a respected female artist in the Baroque period, and indeed later periods as well. She is recorded as having been raped by her own art tutor which symbolises her struggle to be recognised amongst the other male artists at this time (2). Her depiction of Susannah and the Elders from 1610 shows Susanna as vulnerable and resisting, the disgust on her face under the gazes of these ogling older men apparent.This was painted before her rape and interestingly her depiction of women in her paintings after this event often showed much more powerful figures. Judith Slaying Holofernes shows a very powerful woman, calmly proceeding about her gruesome business with her sleeves rolled up.

Gentileschi susanna

Artimisia Gentileschi – Susanna and the Elders, 1610

Gentileschi judith

Artimisia Gentileschi – Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1613

She may well have been suffering the sexual harassment by her art tutor while working on Susanna and the Elders in 1610 and thus she may have chosen to paint Susanna with this experience in mind.  Other artists have chosen to show Susanna in a different ways, often much less resisting and even slightly inviting.

Susanna and the Elders circa 1650-5 by Sir Peter Lely 1618-1680

Sir Peter Lely – Susanna and the Elders, 1655


Tiepolo – Susanna and the Elders, 1723


Guido Reni – Susanna and the Elders, 1620

Gentilleschi painted another version of Susanna and Elders in 1622 which is quite different from the first. In this version she is much more like other artists representations. Susanna is more coquettish in this version but she strains to cover herself and retains the image of chasteness. (Interestingly the attribution of this painting has been questioned as x-rays shows substantial repainting and the style is very different to Artimisia’s (2).)

Gentileschi susanna 2

Artimisia Gentileschi – Susanna and the Elders, 1622

Rembrandt painted two versions of Susanna and the Elders, the first from 1636 differed greatly from preceding interpretations because the Elders are barely visible in the scene. The first impression is that she is alone but Rembrandt employed a tool in both paintings previously used by Rubens so that Susanna makes eye contact with the viewer which brings them into the scene. Rembrandt would have seen the engraving by Lucas Vosterman after Rubens from 1620 in which Susanna engages the viewer with her angry gaze (3). Unlike the come hither glances of the Venus of Urbino and others, this inclusing of the viewer is very different. In essence this gaze makes the viewer another voyeur and thus complicit in this crime and Susanna’s look is reproachful and initiates guilt.

vosterman after rubens 1620 crop

Lucas Vosterman after Rubens, Susanna and the Elders, 1620


Rembrandt – Susanna and the Elders, 1636


Rembrandt – Susanna and the Elders, 1647

Both Rembrandt and Rubens emphasised Susanna’s chastity in her posture by showing her with forcefully closed legs and straining to cover her breasts with both arms. These portrayals of Susanna show her with less flesh on show and the strength of mind at least to glare at someone, compared to those of Gentilleschi who’s figure although resisting, is almost completely nude, and looks pathetically vulnerable. Thus by looking at many other examples of the scene from similar times, I would question that Gentilleschi has tailored her approach to the portrayal of Susanna from a feminine perspective as it seems little difference from that of many other male artists.

Female artists

The topic of female artists painting female nudes is thus not as easy to analyse as male artists. They too would have been swayed by the expectations of society, their own indoctrination, and also the market for buying her paintings (usually men). Throughout history artists have painted what they think will sell or commissions. Very few have had the means, bravery, or even the awareness to shake societies expectations and paint what they like so I certainly think the subject cannot be examined without discussing the context.

The female artist is subject to their own societal pressures on how women should be presented and will be influenced by this without realising. A women can perhaps portray a different viewpoint, such as Artimisia’s first portrayal of Susanna but ultimately the nude is shown weak and vulnerable and the buyer who will look upon the painting is no different from the old men ogling her in the painting.

I think what is more interesting is Artimisia’s portrayal of Judith. This is like no other depiction of the story and what makes it different is the way Judith is portrayed as a strong and powerful woman with no flinching, disgust or guilt. Caravaggio’s Judith hold the sword with little strength and with a clear frown of revulsion and Rubens shows her with a sneer of distaste (and her breasts revealed for no apparent reason!).

There have been few other well recognised female artists from this time period until the 20th century and those such as Judith Leyster and or Elisabetta Sirani stuck to the safe and uncontroversial still lifes, religious scenes, children and families and landscapes.

In more recent times Frida Kahlo’s portrayal of herself as vulnerable and damaged has been attributed to her disabilities as a result of her prior accidents and illness or to her dysfunctional marriage. Stephanie Mencimer in her Washington Monthly article, The Trouble with Frida Kahlo, examines this analysis and suggests that this emphasis on Kahlo’s struggles can overshadow her work (as perhaps with Gentilleschi) and this is something that male artist do not have to contend with. “The female artist needs a compelling tragic biography to enter the male canon, yet her work is then trivialized because of that biography–something that rarely happens to men” (4). She quotes Mary Garrard that “People like to see women as victims” (4).

It seems the patriarchal and stereotypical interpretations are hopefully changing a bit however. Contemporary art often has a very different approach to the female nude. From Jenny Savilles grotesque expanses of flesh which completely subvert the attractive and alluring traditional images to the group of anonymous American artists that called themselves the Guerrilla Girls the portrayal of the female nude in recent years has included some works that question the traditional works.

jenny_saville Strategy South FaceFront FaceNorth Face

Jenny Saville – Strategy South Face, Front Face, North Face, 1994

[no title] 1985-90 by Guerrilla Girls null

Guerrilla Girls – untitled, 1985-90


The subject of gender portrayal in art is vast and I can only touch the tip of the iceberg in this exercise. It is completely entwined in social cultures and and psychology of which I am obviously part of which makes it even more difficult to comprehend. Having touched on it here, I think perhaps I would like to examine this field in more detail perhaps in my later review .


1. Clark, K. (1956) The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art. London: John Murray Publishers Ltd.

2., 07/02/15

3. Sluijter, E J. (2006) Rembrandt and the Female Nude. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

4., 07/02/15

Word Count – 2131




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