The art of the female nude has been one of the few major constants in art, with various forms of the subject being represented in nearly every major art movement for the past 400 years. From the High Renaissance to the Cubist movement of the early 20th century, the depiction of the female nude has undergone many different changes in style, aesthetic and significance in meaning. By examining some of the most well-known paintings of these eras, it is possible to gain an appreciation for the changes that took place in ideology and art style from one time in history to the next. Examining Titian’s Venus of Urbino, Edouard Manet’s Olympia and Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’avignon, the female nude as a representative figure is seen as shifting from an emphasis on romanticism and realistic detail to increasingly down-to-earth, gritty and abstracted visions of the female body.
During the High Renaissance era, the female figure was distinctly eroticized and romanticized; in Titian’s Venus of Urbino, we see the goddess Venus largely devoid of her normal spiritual or symbolic symbols, just depicting her as a beautiful young woman in repose on a bed within a Renaissance-era palace. She clutches a corsage of flowers, draping her body over a sumptuous set of white sheets covering a red bed, with a small puppy at her feet. In the background, a little girl sits on her knees, facing away from Venus and the viewer, while her mother looks down at her while clutching her own arm. The walls and window of a Renaissance palace are shown, illustrating an opulent room filled with tapestries and a patterned carpet. Venus herself stares at the audience with eyes half-open, in an erotic and suggestive manner that still indicates repose.
One of the most significant aspects of Venus’ appearance in the painting is how unconcerned she seems to be about her nudity. Her casual glance and pose indicates that she is very comfortable with her position, even in spite of her lack of privacy (as shown by the other figures in the background). Her hand is over her genitalia, and the dog at the foot of the bed is a symbol of fidelity, which does even out the eroticism of the depiction of Venus somewhat. By domesticating Venus in this manner, Titian makes her more relatable and somewhat sexier. Another important component to Venus of Urbino is the dedication towards making her as sensuous as possible – placing eroticism as a priority higher than showing the perfect woman. This shift away from physical perfection to sensuality is another hallmark of the High Renaissance; the rounded curves, perfect skin, and exaggerated facial and bodily features seek to create a warm, inviting and erotic picture of the female form that was previously rarely seen in other examples.
The way in which the viewer reacts to Venus, because of her body and her surroundings, is one of the most important parts of viewing the painting as art; the stateliness of her environment shows that “she is to be revered, admired, kept in the sacred realm of art, where the bodies are not presented for sexual pleasure.” The frame by which Venus is provided offers a unique juxtaposition between the stately and the erotic, playing up the beauty of her naked body while also informing the viewer that they can acceptably gaze upon her with artistic appreciation. Titian’s Venus is still somewhat in keeping with the statuesque depictions of tasteful female nudes, but that single element of eroticism creeping through is what sets it apart and kicks off a major transition in female nude-based art.
Titian’s Venus in Urbino was a significant reference point and inspiration for Edouard Manet’s Olympia, which depicts a woman in a similar position on a bed, but with its dramatically different style. Instead of the outright eroticism of Venus, the female figure on the bed is much more confrontational towards the viewer; she is still in repose, but the cheeky and casual gaze shown by Venus is exchanged for a direct, straightforward stare right at the viewer. She is sitting up much more rigidly than Venus, propping herself up by her right elbow. Unlike Venus’s long, detailed and slow brushstrokes, Manet’s quick, harsh strokes are painted more broadly to give her a less realistic, more abstracted look. Instead of providing realistic shading to her skin, she is painted in a much more abstracted way. While Venus was lit in low tones to further accentuate the shadows and curves of her body, the figure in Olympia is exposed to harsh, bright lighting, making her seem much more exposed. Venus’ far-away figures, looking away from the nude figure, is replaced by a single maid attending to the figure, fully-clothed to further accentuate her nudity. The nudity in Olympia is not an idealized version, but a rough one, painted with broad strokes, with no nipples on her breasts, de-eroticizing them as objects to be worshipped and simply having them act as a component part of the female body.
Despite the harsher tones of the Manet painting, she is still somewhat sensual and eroticized, due in no small part to the strong confidence that the figure portrays in her face. While Venus was very relaxed, Olympia is strong and purposeful, looking at the viewer straight on and wide-awake (as opposed to the true repose of Titian’s figure). While she is in the normal trappings of a demure woman in repose, her strength in confronting the viewer allows for a moment of self-reflection and examination of one’s motives in looking at her. Her look is one of defiance, a challenge that the woman knows that she is being looked at. This is a major change from the passive gaze and observing of woman as object that has happened in previous works, like Venus in Urbino. In Olympia, the woman is not just being looked at, but she is looking back. She takes more concrete ownership of her sexuality, covering her vagina in a measure of protection, showing how much control she has over her own body despite the violating gaze of men.
Manet’s depiction of the female nude is a strong indicator of how the nude was thought of during the movements of Realism and Impressionism. Instead of wanting to idealize or romanticize women, the Impressionists sought to poke holes in these classical depictions of women, grounding them by pointing out the male gaze and stripping women down to their bare elements – this prevented people from pretending they were not doing what they were doing. With none of the trappings or mystique present in Renaissance nudes, Impressionist nudes made it clear that female nudes were the main subject and attraction of these kinds of paintings, making them more realistic by putting them in current-day situations (like Olympia’s contemporary French setting). By making the phenomenon of the female nude so ordinary, it stripped it of its pomp and frills and successfully grounded the presence of the nude body in a relatable context to make the figure more familiar to the audience.
A further abstraction of the female nude from its romanticism to abstraction comes in Pablo Picasso’s work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. In this work, instead of one woman in repose, there are five women in varying standing poses, all grouped with each other. Given Picasso’s Cubist painting style, the figures are as far away from the Titian-era Venus as possible; figures are drawn as blocky, non-textural figures that merely approximate the female body without any attempt at realistic detail. Some of the women’s limbs are contorted in impossible positions, with one arm being longer than the other; the women on the lower right implicitly has her back turned completely, yet is still able to turn her head and look straight at the audience. The two figures on the right have a strange, mask-like face that looks almost tribal in appearance, while the other three women have blank, almost featureless faces. The disjointed nature of their bodies and their blank, intense stares make them seem almost menacing and frightening – a far cry from the romanticism and eroticism of Venus and Olympia in the other works. The figures are “bodies that educe comparatively natural and confident postures,” being confident in their own off-putting, slightly mocking nature – while they are naked, and are meant to be prostitutes in the context of the painting (a brothel), they are not attempting to be enticing.
This painting represents the first real Cubist painting, and also demonstrates one of the most significant removals from the female nude’s original purpose as a source of erotic sensuousness. The five women have monstrous faces, abstracted bodies, and unclear, almost hostile motivations – this is the final step in the three paintings to fully confronting the viewer about the reasons they wish to seek out female nudes. Cubism, and this painting in particular, is highly critical of the eroticism of the female nude, choosing instead to make it playful and place the power in the hands of the women. It also makes the experience of gazing at female nudes less inviting and intimate because of the presence of multiple nude women; not one of them is the concrete subject, turning a relationship between observer and subject into one where multiple subjects outnumber the observer, making them uncomfortable. Like Olympia, they stare at the viewer, but their Africanesque masks and blank stares offer no emotion but hostility and frenzy.
Chave, Anna C. "New encounters with Les Demoiselles d'Avignon: gender, race, and the origins
of cubism." Art Bulletin (1994): 597-611.
Eck, Beth A. "Men are much Harder Gendered Viewing of Nude Images."Gender & Society 17,
no. 5 (2003): 691-710.
Lipton, Eunice. Alias Olympia: A Woman's Search for Manet's Notorious Model & Her Own Desire. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999.
Manet, Edouard. Olympia (1863).
Picasso, Pablo, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907).
Titian, Venus of Urbino (1538).