The history of the female nude is as old as art itself – beginning with the Venus of Willendorf, it ranges from Plato to postmodernism.
The history of the female nude is as old as art itself; beginning with the Venus of Willendorf, it ranges from Plato to postmodernism. The trope of the female nude, a primary aesthetic tradition within the history of Western art, works as an “ordering device”—a range of images creates a “virtually uninterrupted and progressive history of representation stretching from classical antiquity to the Renaissance and on to the heroic achievements of modernism.”1 The female nude is not only a subject of art, but its own unique art form. Representations of the female nude provide viewers with overarching ideas of art and its purpose in society, and endow us with a litmus test for how a given society conceptualizes women.
Since antiquity, the nude female has been categorized primarily as a passive creature. As Lisa Farrington writes in her book Reinventing Herself: The Black Female Nude, the arrangement of female bodies throughout the history of art positions women as objects. The nude:
reclines or poses placidly in a pastoral setting or in a domestic interior for the benefit of an often unseen but invariable assumed male viewer. Her eyes are either modestly averted or shyly welcoming, and she offers herself up as a feast for the male gaze. Passive, receptive, and available, she is presented as sexual spectacle—an invitation to voyeurism, lacking individuality, cognition, or the ability to act decisively. Conversely, the male nude is readily depicted as energetic and active, exemplifying vigorous pursuits such as athleticism, heroism and violence.2
Men are not judged solely on their appearance, but on their social position as communicated via visual cues. Women, on the other hand, are defined by their physical forms and their adornment (or lack thereof). They hold power only by proximity—on some level, the production of the female nude by male artists constitutes an acknowledgement that women satiate a desire that men are unable to satisfy themselves.
In The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality, Lynda Nead writes that the female nude occupies a tenuous position. The female nude has the power to “arouse but also to overindulge immortality and base desires. It had to be made to demonstrate the command of art over nature, mind over body, turning woman and nature into a cultural artifact. Otherwise the female nude would wreak havoc on the Western metaphysical tradition and on art itself.”3
The following brief overview of the female nude throughout art history will set the stage for a selection of contemporary works in the Hood Museum of Art’s collection by artists who engage with questions of representation and reclamation.
1. Lynda Nead, The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality, New York: Routledge, 1992, 44.
2. Lisa Farrington, "Reinventing Herself: The Black Female Nude," Woman's Art Journal 24 (2003): 15-23, 15.
3. Lynda Nead, The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality, New York: Routledge, 1992, 40.