The Female Nude

Page 50 of the course notes give another research task, this time on the female nude.

“In The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, the art historian Kenneth Clark distinguished between the naked (i.e. unclothed) figure and the nude. He reserved the latter term for an ideal figure, usually derived from classical precedents. When Clark first wrote his book in 1956, he was criticised for hinting that there might be some element of physical attraction in the portrayal of the human body. By 1989, when Gill Saunders published The Nude: A New Perspective in response to Clark, art historians were already more open about the political, social and sexual context for the nude.” p50

The task is to ‘research some of the most famous female nudes such as Titian’s Venus of Urbino, Velásquez’s Rokeby Venus and nudes by Ingres, Manet and Gauguin’, all painted by men. And compare these with the way woman artists portray female nudes. Additionally ‘think about the rare instances where women have created well-known images of male nudes such as Sam Taylor-Wood’s video portrait of the sleeping David Beckham’.

Female nudes by Men:

Venus of Urbino, 1538, by Titian (not shown here because I was uncertain of the copyright to the reproductions of it).

Titian’s Venus is a very sensual, full frontal nude, reclining on a bed and gazing directly and rather coyly back at the viewer. There’s a little dog at the end of the bed which is supposed to represent fidelity There is also a small scene with a young girl rummaging in a chest overseen by an older women going on the in the background but it doesn’t detract from the main subject. As the video below suggests, there isn’t really any  accoutrements suggesting that this nude is actually Venus.

The google cultural institute website pointed me in the direction of this interesting video about it:


Rokeby Venus, 1647-51, by Velásquez

I was half way through this task when I visited the National Gallery so I stopped by the Rokeby Venus to see it in person. I’ve written about this painting separately here. For this exercise however, we are presented with another sensual but more decorous nude. With her back to us, she gazes at us from the mirror. In this painting we know it is actually Venus because her son Cupid is accompanying her in the bedchamber. However, Venus is usually depicted as a blonde, here she is brunette.

The Toilet of Venus ('The Rokeby Venus') 1647-51, Diego Velázquez. National Gallery, London.
The Toilet of Venus (‘The Rokeby Venus’)
1647-51, Diego Velázquez. National Gallery, London.


‘La Grande Odalisque, 1814, ‘Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

Jean-Auguste-Dominique INGRES (Montauban, 1780 - Paris, 1867) La Grande Odalisque 1814, Louvre, France Photo © RMN/H. Lewandowski
Jean-Auguste-Dominique INGRES (Montauban, 1780 – Paris, 1867)
La Grande Odalisque, 1814, Louvre, France
Oil on Canvas, H. 0.91 m; W. 1.62 m
Photo © RMN/H. Lewandowski

The nude in this painting by Ingres is not Venus but an odalisque (a concubine from a harem). This casts a very different context and a sexual connotation on the image from the start. She is set in a luxurious exotic looking bedchamber. As with the Velásquez, she is composed with her back to us but this time she is turning slightly to stare back at us, her expression does not look very inviting though. As with the Titian, the female anatomy has had liberties taken with it to emphasise the sensuality over the realistic. The Velásquez nude has a more natural female anatomy.

I searched on youtube and the same people made a little conversation video in front of this painting too:


Olympia, 1863, Edouard Manet, Oil on canvas, H. 130; W. 190 cm, Paris, Musée d’Orsay (not shown here because I was uncertain of the copyright to the reproductions of it).

The painting is again of a full frontal reclining nude such as Titian. Here, she is lying on a rumbled bed, again staring at the viewer but this time she stares with a self assurance and a challenge in her expression. she is most clearly a prostitute which caused a scandal in the Salon where it was first shown.

“…the picture portrays the cold and prosaic reality of a truly contemporary subject. Venus has become a prostitute, challenging the viewer with her calculating look.” (Musée d’Orsay, 2006)


Spirit Of The Dead Watching, 1892, by Paul Gauguin
oil on burlap mounted on canvas framed: 45 11/16 x 53 x 5 1/4 inches (116.05 x 134.62 x 13.33 cm)

Picture not uploaded here due to copyright on reproductions but I found this youtube video which is just the picture set to music.

This nude by Gauguin gives a different vibe altogether, I think it is downright creepy! It is a nude Tahitian girl lying in her front on a bed with her legs crossed and like the other reclining nudes she is posed diagonally across the canvas. By the bed is a sinister figure just staring at her. She looks frightened and I would be too. The title rounds off the creep factor. This is just one of the many nudes that Gauguin painted when he was in Tahiti and many were of sensuous beauties frolicking in the sunshine. I found this interesting article on how what he painted was actually a myth from his imagination and the natives were actually more likely to have been wearing Christian missionary gowns at that time.


Female nudes by Women:

Marina Abramović

Marina Abramović is a Yugoslavian performance artist. She uses her nude body in her performances. Descriptions of her early work sound dangerous and exhausting, for example this description of Rhythm 0 (1974) where she invites the audience to use 72 items on her body in any way they liked! Here she is talking about that 6hr ordeal. It’s difficult to comprehend this art without seeing a performance of it (actually I don’t think I’d want to). She also reperformed Seven Easy Pieces at the Guggenheim in 2005 (Seven-channel video installation, color, sound, 7 hr). Here is an audio clip of her speaking about that. Another longer piece called Nude with Skeleton (2002/2005/2010) is reperformed continuously in shifts for a total of over 700 hours and is about confronting fears of pain and death. Seemly for Abramović the nakedness in her work is anything but sensual as it was in the paintings by men we looked at above.

Sam Taylor-Wood, That White Rush, 2007

In the 2007 Venice Biennale, Sam Taylor-Wood exhibited in the Ukrainian pavilion a video with a nude girl with decomposing swam lying on top of her (yuck)! The poor girl didn’t have to actually lie there for 4 weeks, it’s a composite of two videos seamlessly edited together but sounds less than sensual to me and I couldn’t really work out what that has to do with being Ukrainian.

Male nudes by Women:

David By Sam Taylor-Wood

I missed a trick when I visited the National Portrait gallery (albeit briefly) by not seeking out this to see for myself (I did catch a few minutes on youtube though), Sam Taylor-Wood’s video portrait of the sleeping David Beckham is an hour of David Beckham asleep. For a man as photographed as David Beckham this is probably the only way he had yet to be viewed by the public. Like the other nudes by women mentioned this is also not really a sexually charged work, although I’m sure that teenage fans of David Beckham were titillated nonetheless.



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