Vanity: Disrupting the Female Nude
You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “Vanity,” thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for you own pleasure.
— John Berger, Ways of Seeing




Les Demoiselles d'AvignonPablo Picasso, 1907, oil on canvas, Museum of MOdern Art, New York City, UNited States
© 2017 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

MatisseBlueNudefrom ARS.jpg

Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954), Blue Nude, 1907, Oil on canvas, 36 1/4 x 55 1/4 in. (92.1 x 140.3 cm.), The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA 1950.228, Photography By: Mitro Hood
© 2017 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

At the dawn of the 20th century, artists like Pablo Picasso, Egon Schiele, and Marcel Duchamp “seized the erotic as a means of challenging and transgressing the accepted categories of high art, particularly the tradition of the nude.”1 As sexual transgression became a widespread motif in a new age of stylistic experimentation, representing the female nude continued to signify the artist’s masculinity, virility, and lack sexual inhibition. This served to extend the established norms surrounding the female nude.

The advent of Cubism and the new avant-garde allowed Picasso and Henri Matisse an opportunity to disrupt the classic art historical narrative of the female nude as strictly an object offered up for the consumption of the male gaze. Instead of departing from these traditions, however, these artists used the female nude (and, specifically, bodies of women of color) as a space to assert their dominance in the art world—a battleground for their own ego. In so doing, they left room for future generations of artists to confront this problematic legacy and adopt new approaches to the female nude and subjectivity.


A variety of contemporary artists featured in the Hood Museum’s collection have both investigated the art historical conventions related to representations of the female nude and made visual critical responses to that tradition. By exploring what constitutes the "acceptable" female nude, and by considering who is allowed to frame its criteria, these artist reinvent the nude as a site of reclamation and disruption.

Meghan Dailey writes in Curve: The Female Nude Now that it is “virtually impossible to create an image of a female nude today without invoking its long and complex history in Western art, a history that continues to undergo scrutiny and revision by artists and scholars alike.”2 The female nude in contemporary art dovetails with a variety of inquiries, such as the (relatively) new medium of photography, the power of self-portraiture, and an increasingly intersectional examination of race as it pertains to the female nude throughout art history.


1. Alyce Mahon, Eroticism and Art, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, 36.
2. Meghan Dailey, Sarah Valdez, and Jane Harris, Curve: The Female Nude Now, New York: Universe, 2003, 15.




Jessica King Fredel

About the author: 

Jessica King Fredel graduated in 2017 from Dartmouth College, where she was a history major and art history minor, She also served as a Levinson Senior Intern at the Hood Museum of Art. She grew up in San Francisco, California. This project on the female nude and its implications was inspired by John Berger's Ways of Seeing, and by a class King Fredel took on Pablo Picasso in her freshman fall at Dartmouth. This class sparked an interest in Picasso, a paper on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, her academic focus on art history, and her interest in serving as an intern at the Hood Museum.

Tremendous thanks to the Hood Museum of Art and the DALI Lab at Dartmouth for all their help with this project. 

Please feel free to contact Jessica with questions or feedback at